The "Brawl in City Hall" between the Birmingham mayor and a member of the City Council recently prompted many residents to comment on social media that they couldn't believe something like this could happen. But for me, reading about it stirred memories of an all-too-similar event that I covered four decades ago as a young reporter.
Sadly, physical violence between politicians in public settings is not without precedent, even here in Alabama. Perhaps the best known event in the state occurred in June 2007 on the floor of the Alabama Senate when Sen. Charles Bishop walloped fellow Sen. Lowell Barron with a blow to the head before the two had to be pulled apart. Bishop said Barron cursed him and he lost his temper and punched him.
I wrote scathing editorials about the childish behavior involved in that incident, but another example in my home state of South Carolina many years before is even more reminiscent of the Birmingham brouhaha.
In 1973 my usual beat as a reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., was state government, but one afternoon I was called upon to cover the Richland County Commission. I recall being a little miffed that I had to stop working on an investigative piece to cover what promised to be a routine commission meeting.
But then an argument started over something seemingly mundane -- I think it might have been septic tank regulations, or something like that. The two commissioners (I won't use their names; no need to embarrass them again after 40 years) at first just started shouting at one another, but as their fellow commissioners tried to separate them, shouting turned to shoving, then fists started flying.
One commissioner shoved the other into his chair, and they were soon surrounded by people trying to separate them. Forgetting decorum, I stood in my chair to try to get a better view but it did not help much. Then suddenly everyone froze, and what appeared to be a leg skittered out of the crowd and fell onto the floor.
One commissioner's artificial leg had come off in the melee.
The commission chairman cleared the room and continued the meeting behind closed doors. Soon afterwards both commissioners left the room separately. The one whose artificial limb had come off refused to comment to me, but I interviewed the other commissioner as he left. The man was clearly still in shock. He claimed the other commissioner was trying to kick him, and his leg came off in his hands.
I remember him staring at his hands as if he didn't recognize they were part of him as he tried to give his version of what happened.
The story I wrote about the fight was picked up by newspapers around the nation. So was the coverage of the Birmingham City Council fight, once again giving Alabama's image a black eye.
Both of the county commissioners in South Carolina were respected members of their communities with honorable business and political careers. But I imagine that both had to try to live down those few minutes of anger for years afterwards.
When Alabama State Sen. Charles Bishop retired from politics after a long career in which he also served as both state labor commissioner and agriculture commissioner, he lamented more than anything else that one punch.
"That's one thing in my career I wish had never happened, but it will always be remembered," he said.
I suspect the same could be said for Birmingham Mayor William Bell and Councilman Marcus Lundy. They both apologized for the incident that occurred at a council meeting and said all the usual stuff about focusing on the city's business.
Bu regardless of how much they hug now and what either of them accomplish in the future, there will always be a footnote in their records about that "brawl in city hall."
In an interview with Associated Press reporter Phillip Rawls in which he said he was leaving politics for good, Charles Bishop made it clear that he knew all of his accomplishments in public office would be overshadowed by a few seconds of anger.
"When you think about Sen. Bishop, you will think about that punch," Bishop said.
That's something Bell and Lundy should have thought of before their fight, and it's something all elected officials should remember any time they feel their tempers about to get the best of them.
Ken Hare is a longtime newspaper editor and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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