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Pictured: Mayor William E. Cooper
Photo by Kay Kirkland, City of Enterprise
Photo by Kay Kirkland
Enterprise’s first black mayor strives to always remember where he came from | News | southeastsun.com
“My momma and dad taught us that it doesn’t matter how high a bird flies, eventually it has to come back down and don’t ever get too high and mighty to forget where you came from,” Cooper remembered. “Always be humble and be kind topeople and you’ll get somewhere. I will never allow myself to be in a situation where I look over somebody. If you can’t help someone, don’t hurt them.”
Cooper earned a music scholarship to Alabama State University right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. When he came to ASU, Cooper said he was oblivious to many of the struggles going on in the Capital City at the time.
“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (in Montgomery) at that time. I did not know what was going on but they had had the Montgomery Bus Boycott and demonstrations and sit-ins and I didn’t even know what it was all about,” Cooper said. “I saw some people in robes and I didn’t even know you call them the KKK. Someone burned across at the bottom of our stadium and all of this was news to me.
“I had a chance to go down to Dexter Avenue when they attempted to march one Sunday evening to the capital and they came with fire hoses and police dogs and horses and drove those folks back to the church. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.”
Cooper said that he began attending many of King’s rallies and even got to know the man.
“I went to a lot of Dr. King’s rallies and one of the many (songs) he loved was ‘Precious Lord’ and I had a chance to play it a many of his rallies,” Cooper said with a glean in his eyes. “He knew me by name and he and I were both members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.”
Cooper said he grew up fighting back when someone pushed you, so he learned a lot about nonviolence from the late great Dr. King.
“He’s where I learned about nonviolence,” Cooper emphasized. “Down in Dothan as boys, we would fight. You hit me and I’ll hit you back, I’ll knock the hell out of you.
“I saw how he got his message across without responding to violence with more violence. I learned a great deal from him.”
It was during this time Cooper met and befriended another famous Civil Rights leader.
“One Saturday I was getting ready to come back home and we were at the bus station when the Freedom Riders came down,” Cooper said. “They came in the bus station and all these people crowded around them and started fighting with them.
2/22/2021 Enterprise’s first black mayor strives to always remember where he came from | News | southeastsun.com
“I had some shades in my (shirt) pocket and they hit me and the shades broke and cut my chest. I was down on the floor in the back there and there was a young man from Troy, Alabama named John Lewis. I met him on the floor of that Greyhound bus station and from that day until the day he died we were friends. We kept in touch all of these years.”
After graduation, Cooper’s aunt – who was a teacher at Carroll Street Elementary – and the man that would become a mentor to him – BF Garth – convinced Cooper to accept the position of music director at Coppinville High School.
Cooper remained the music director at Coppinville even after Enterprise City Schools integrated and Coppinville became a junior high school. After 42 years of service Cooper retired only to return to the school system at Enterprise High School following the devastating 2007 tornado that destroyed the school.
Cooper also served on the Board of Directors of the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce.
“Coming to Enterprise at the time they did not have a person from the minority community serve on the council and I was the first (African-American) person appointed to the board of directors,” Cooper said. “Some people had asked me if I would run for city council and I decided to do so and won (in 1987).”
Cooper’s future in government was instilled in him more than 50 years earlier at Carver High School in Dothan, by his brother.
“I was in the band when my brother came back after finishing school at Tuskegee and he taught an American Government class,” Cooper said. “I was in that class and he really fell in love with American Government.
“I knew the names of every county in the state, I could name all 50 states, I knew who the president’s staff was and I could name all the county tag numbers because (my brother) demanded that. When I went to college I enrolled in an American Government class and I excelled. Being in the band and American Government were my two favorites about school. My foundation was laid to me by my brother in an 11th grade American Government class.”
After becoming Enterprise’s first black city councilman, Cooper became the president of the City Council and then former Mayor Kenneth Boswell accepted a position with the state in 2017 meaning that Cooper would take his place becoming Enterprise’s first black mayor. In 2020, Cooper was elected becoming the city’s first elected black mayor, as well.
Even in the City of Progress, though, Cooper said he felt resistance from some within the community and the city.
“Let’s face it there are a lot of folks that did not want people of color to be in certain positions and there are still people like that,” Cooper flatly said. “There were some city employees that were really resentful and they would try to disrespect me but I didn’t retaliate against them.
“I didn’t realize the fact that I would be somewhat in a situation were those certain people didn’t accept me because of my color. There were a lot of things – you would say perks and such – of being president of the council that went away when I became the president. I didn’t run them down or anything, though, you just kill them with kindness and that’s what I did.”
Cooper said that he believes his greatest accomplishment thus far is being able to get along and be accepted in his position.
“To be elected as the Mayor of Enterprise was a great honor to me,” Cooper said. “My biggest accomplishment was being able to get along with the people and being accepted.
“I try to get along with my employees. I’m not a ‘snoopavisor,’ I’m a supervisor. I’m visible and I go around and I’ve told my public works director one day I’m going to put my work clothes on and ride the trash truck and I’m going to go with the water department and work in the ditch. When I was coming up in Dothan I worked with a construction company, I worked hard. I want to show everyone that even though I’m in this position I’m not afraid to get dirty because soap and water will remove allof that.”
Cooper said that he works hard to be a mayor that that his city can be proud of.
“I try to be the man that the people elected and I have my moral values,” Cooper said. “I just try to be a person like my wife and I raised our children to be; humble and respectful and if you can’t help somebody, don’t hurt them.”
Cooper only has one regret for his time as Enterprise mayor; that his mother and father didn’t get to see him become mayor before they passed. He says that he has very lofty goals for the city that he wants to see accomplished.
“We are in the process of trying to get an aquatic center, I want to remodel city hall, I want to try and get all of the unpaved streets paved, I want to add on more to the airport and add on more to the industrial park so we can lure in more jobs here,” Cooper said. “Especially when it comes down to helicopters and automobiles, we really want to work on getting more jobs. If we can get a factory in here that makes motors and then one that makes bodies, eventually we can assemble cars right herein Enterprise.
“I want to make a four-lane Highway 167 to Highway 231 in Enterprise. I want for us to keep supporting our school system and make it bigger and better, the same with Enterprise State Community College. There are a lot of things I want to do and I know some of them I can’t get done but I’m going to work towards these goals.”