Lessons In Moving Forward On Race From A 40-Year Mayor

Lessons In Moving Forward On Race From A 40-Year Mayor

6:48pm Mar 25, 2015
"It's an intense job, you give it all, everyday, and I just don't want to get into another term where I say 'Gee, it would be nice to take it a little bit easier,'" Mayor Joe Riley says.
"It's an intense job, you give it all, everyday, and I just don't want to get into another term where I say 'Gee, it would be nice to take it a little bit easier,'" Mayor Joe Riley says.
Richard Ellis / Getty Images
  • "It's an intense job, you give it all, everyday, and I just don't want to get into another term where I say 'Gee, it would be nice to take it a little bit easier,'" Mayor Joe Riley says.

    "It's an intense job, you give it all, everyday, and I just don't want to get into another term where I say 'Gee, it would be nice to take it a little bit easier,'" Mayor Joe Riley says.

    Richard Ellis / Getty Images

  • Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, home of the RiverDogs.

    Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, home of the RiverDogs.

    Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

It might not sound newsworthy that Charleston, S.C., is getting a new mayor next year. But the last time the city elected a new mayor was 40 years ago, in December 1975.

That mayor is Joe Riley. He has been re-elected nine times since, and now, at 72, has decided to retire. During his tenure, he has palpably changed the look and feel of Charleston and has been praised for taking a stand on racial issues. In 2000, he led a five-day march of hundreds to Columbia, S.C., to demand that the Confederate flag stop being flown above the state Capitol. Riley spoke recently to NPR's Robert Siegel about that march, urban design and how he feels about having the city's new baseball park named after him.


Interview Highlights

On changing the look of Charleston

What I saw [in Europe] was that the average person loved and was grateful for a quality public realm in their city. And that is the essence of a city — the buildings, the streets, the squares, the parks, the institutions. It is the duty of the mayor of being the urban designer for his city. The mayor has the power to affect people generations away.

And if you think about it, a society is more healthy when the things we love the most are the things we share ownership with. When the public has a park that the richest and the poorest own alike. Or a main street that's lively and safe and healthy and everyone owns, then we're all better off.

On marching to urge removal of the Confederate flag over the state Capitol

In 2000, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (right) led hundreds of marchers 120 miles to Columbia, S.C., demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the top of the state Capitol.

In 2000, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (right) led hundreds of marchers 120 miles to Columbia, S.C., demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from the top of the state Capitol.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

I sought this job ... mainly to help build a bridge between the African-American and the white community. Charleston's a deep Southern city, the Civil War was started here, the '60s and '70s time of change, and that was what brought me to this job.

So having the Confederate battle flag flying atop the state Capitol, it made no sense and it was an affront to many people in our state. And so I led the march, and it came down. And that was a very important experience for me, and I think it helped our state move forward.

On having the city's new ballpark named after him

I never wanted that. I worked hard to get a baseball park built ... and there was a lot of controversy, and why not put it in the outskirts of town where the land is cheap and all of that. So the City Council demanded, against my vote, that they name it after me.

Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, home of the RiverDogs.

Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, home of the RiverDogs.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

[When the season starts] I will throw out my last opening day pitch and work very hard to get it over the plate.

On deciding to retire

It's an intense job, you give it all, everyday, and I just don't want to get into another term where I say "Gee, it would be nice to take it a little bit easier." So my goal is to finish the last day in office, mentally, like running through the finish line of a road race with a good kick. I've got about 50 active projects I'm working on right now and probably never worked harder in my life.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Next year, Charleston, S.C. will have a new mayor. That might not sound especially newsworthy, but the last time Charleston elected a new mayor was 40 years ago in December, 1975. That is when Joe Riley was first elected mayor of Charleston. He has been elected nine times since. And he has decided that 10 terms - 10 terms during which he has palpably changed the look of Charleston, S.C., the design of the city - 10 terms are enough. Mayor Riley joins us from Charleston right now. Welcome to the program.

MAYOR JOE RILEY: Thank you, Robert, great to be with you.

SIEGEL: Now, you're only 72. Why throw in the towel so soon?

RILEY: (Laughter) Well, it's an intense job. You give it all every day, and my goal is to finish the last day in office mentally, like, running through the finish line of a road race with a good kick. I've got about 50 active projects I'm working on right now and probably I've never worked harder in my life.

SIEGEL: Mayor Riley, you're best known, and you've been very highly honored, for your role in restoring and developing the look and feel of Charleston, and also in encouraging other mayors around the country to take city design seriously. You told me years ago that it was a trip to Europe that turned you into mayor as urban planner in chief. I just wonder, what did you see on that trip that was so moving?

RILEY: It was accumulation of sites over eight cities in a couple of weeks. And what I saw, Robert, was that the average person loved and was grateful for a quality public realm in their city. And that is the essence of a city - the buildings, the streets, the squares, the parks, the institutions - when built with quality, every citizen - the poorest citizen, the richest citizens' lives are enhanced. And it is the duty of the mayor of being the urban designer for his city. The mayor has the power to affect people generations away.

SIEGEL: You think that our default mode as Americans is to cultivate our private spaces and forget about the public spaces that we share with the other people of our city.

RILEY: That's right. And if you think about it, a society is more healthy when the things we love the most are the things we share ownership with.

SIEGEL: You were an advocate of South Carolina adopting the King holiday, and I believe it was the last state to do so. You also organized and led a five-day march back in 2000 to urge the removal of the Confederate battle flag over the state house. How important were those battles for you as mayor?

RILEY: Well, they were very important. I sought this job 39-and-a-half years ago mainly to help build a bridge between the African-American and the white community. Charleston's a deep southern city. The Civil War was started here, the '60s and '70s time of change, and that was what brought me to this job. So having the Confederate battle flag flying atop the state capitol, it made no sense, and it was an affront to many people in our state. And so I led the march, and it came down. And that was a very important experience for me, and I think it helped our state move forward.

SIEGEL: While there are parks and there are neighborhoods of Charleston that are a testimony to your nearly biblical 40 years as mayor of the city, but I know there's one special tribute to you that you enjoy, which is the name of the stadium.

RILEY: (Laughter) Well, that was very nice. I never wanted that. We - I worked hard to get a baseball park built. We were going to lose our minor league team. And I wanted it on the water and it always cost more money. And there was a lot of controversy, and why do we need a new ballpark, and why not put it in the outskirts of town where the land is cheap and all of that? And - but we built it. It's beautiful. So the city council demanded - against my vote - that they name it after me. But I...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Did they want to make sure people blamed you for it if anything went wrong?

RILEY: Well, that's one thing about mayor - the buck stops here, so if it doesn't go right, you're the one to blame. But then the stadium got the nickname The Joe, so that's what everybody calls it. I'm a baseball fan, so I'm very proud of that.

SIEGEL: Is it the RiverDogs? When does their season start?

RILEY: Yeah, the RiverDogs's season starts Thursday the 9 of April, and I will throw out my last opening day pitch and work very hard to get it over the plate.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Mayor Riley - Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C. - thanks for talking with us.

RILEY: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station