BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Larry P. Langford, a well-known political figure in Birmingham, Fairfield, and Jefferson County, has passed away.
The former Birmingham mayor known as much for his corruption trial as he is for his career in politics was 72 years old.
Langford began making a name for himself in the mid-1970s when he became one of the first African-American TV reporters in Birmingham. He was known for his aggressive reporting, flamboyant style, and humor.
His popularity helped launch his successful run for the Birmingham City Council in 1977. It was his first taste of politics.
After one term as councilman, Langford went on to become the mayor of Fairfield in 1988 where he led efforts to build the Visionland theme park near Bessemer. At the time, it was considered a model of how various municipal governments could work together.
The vision faltered, however, when the park declared bankruptcy and was sold to a private company. It’s now known as Alabama Splash Adventure.
Langford ran for and was elected to a seat on the Jefferson County Commission in 2002. As commission president, he arranged and encouraged bond swaps which later resulted in a $3.2 billion sewer debt and ultimately led the county to declare bankruptcy in 2011.
Long before the bonds went bad, Langford had turned his political ambitions back to Birmingham where he was elected mayor in 2007. His energy and enthusiasm rallied supporters with a call to “do something.”
He vowed to clean up Birmingham’s neighborhoods, build a domed stadium, and even made a bid to host the Olympics.
Langford often referred to his faith and once wore a burlap sack as he addressed a prayer rally to fight crime. He was known to hold Bible studies at City Hall each week.
Langford's days as mayor were numbered, though, as investigators began taking a hard look at the county's bond swaps. Those deals eventually led to Langford's conviction of bribery, conspiracy, and fraud.
The convictions were shared with Montgomery investment banker Bill Blount and lobbyist Al LaPierre who both pleaded guilty to bribing Langford with gifts and money. Langford never admitted guilt and maintained the deals and gifts were a result of friendship, not bribery.
He also made it clear he felt the case against him was motivated by race and partisan politics.
After the conviction in late 2009, Langford was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. He entered a federal facility in Kentucky in April 2010.
He was 64 years old at the time and said he never expected to leave prison alive. As a longtime smoker, he had questions about his health.
Over the years since he entered prison, Langford’s health has declined. He has been treated for chronic health issues including pulmonary disease and emphysema.
Multiple public figures called for a compassionate release from prison for Langford, including former Birmingham Mayor William Bell and U.S. Representative from Alabama Terri Sewell.
Langford’s attorneys said officials with the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed he met the criteria for a reduction in sentence by compassionate release in November 2018, but the request was ultimately denied because they felt his release would “minimize the severity of his offense and pose a danger to the safety of the community.”
However, a compassionate release was granted by Federal Judge Scott Coogler on Friday, December 28, 2018. After his release, Langford was brought back to Birmingham by ambulance on Saturday, December 29.
Former County Commissioner Sheila Smoot, who worked alongside Langford, is remembering his will to never give up on and to always keep things moving.
"Larry Langford's in this town, Larry Langford's in this state, Larry Langford resignated for whatever reason, he was so charasmatic. He was always believable, he always believed that if he said it could be done, it could be done and as he always said there ain't no stopping us now, let's just do it and let's do something was one of his slogans," Smoot said.
“There’s no denying his mantra, his slogan was let’s do something. Well he did something here in the city of Birmingham, in metro Birmingham, and that’s undeniable,” said State Representative Juandalynn Givan.
The city of Fairfield, where Langford was mayor, released the following statement on his passing:
The City of Fairfield is greatly saddened by the loss of our beloved former Mayor Larry P. Langford. His love and dedication for this City, its citizens, and surrounding communities will be everlasting and an integral part of his great legacy. We will forever be inspired by his spirit as we move forward.
The following is Langford’s obituary released by his family:
Larry Paul Langford, 72, who served as the mayor of Birmingham from 2007 to 2009, passed away peacefully among family on Jan. 8, 2019. Mayor Langford will be remembered as a visionary who constantly worked to transform potential into promise.
Mayor Langford grew up in the Loveman Village public housing in Titusville. He graduated from Parker High School in 1965. Langford would serve five years in the U.S. Air Force and later attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in social and behavioral sciences in 1972. While enrolled there, he worked at WBRC as one of the nation’s first black television reporters.
Langford was elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1977 and two years later made an unsuccessful bid for the city’s mayoral seat. But in 1982, he moved to Fairfield. He became that city’s first black mayor in 1988.
Under his leadership, his office increased the city’s sales tax, which he would later use to support the struggling Fairfield City Schools. A vocal advocate for social conservatism and open government, Langford gained notoriety for his outspoken views and willingness to take action – whether challenging the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity’s practice of holding closed meetings or chasing a pair of purse snatchers near Fairfield City Hall.
Perhaps Langford’s most well-known achievement was helping to form the West Jefferson Amusement Authority to finance construction and operation of Bessemer’s $60 million Visionland amusement park in 1998. The park was later sold and reopened as Alabama Adventure.
After four terms as Fairfield mayor, Langford was elected to the Jefferson County Commission in 2002 and was named president soon after. In his role as Commissioner of Health and Human Services, Langford created the Jefferson Metropolitan Health Care Authority as well as helped with the renovation of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.
In 2007, Langford successfully ran for the office of mayor in Birmingham, fueled by the campaign slogan, “Let’s Do Something.” Ever the visionary, Langford proposed the construction of a domed football stadium, retro-style trolleys to assist with mass transit, a canal from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to allow cruise ships to dock in the city and advocated for the city to host the 2020 Olympics. Several of those ideas are taking shape today, with the approval of an open-air stadium in downtown Birmingham and the Magic City serving as host of the 2021 World Games.
Langford is survived by his wife, Melva; son, Ronald Strothers; niece, Lena Powe McDonald; brother, Oliver Nance; sister-in-law, Casi Ferguson; grandchildren, Ronald Strothers III and Jared Daniel Strothers; and a host of other nieces, nephews, friends and supporters. His legacy will always be one of innovation, boldness and creativity.
All city flags will be flown at half-staff in Langford’s honor.