Selma's first black mayor wants to bring hope and healing

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SELMA, Ala. – To outsiders, 47-year-old computer consultant James Perkins Jr. is noteworthy because he is about to become the first black mayor of Selma.

Mr. Perkins' election means the end of the 36-year mayoral stranglehold of Joe T. Smitherman, who many residents here view as a living symbol of racial segregation.

And many of Selma's black citizens view Mr. Perkins' election as much more than a change in leadership. In this infamous Alabama community where law enforcement officers once beat blacks bloody before national TV cameras for seeking the right to vote, Mr. Perkins is being hailed as an emancipator of biblical proportions.

"I believe the Lord has sent him as another Moses," said Callie Marie Shaw, 58. "He is our Moses."

Mr. Perkins, who defeated Mr. Smitherman in a Sept. 12 runoff, said he plans neither to part water nor send plagues on this central Alabama city of 23,700. Instead, he said, he wants to bring reconciliation where once there was division and strife.

"The politics of Selma have been based on fear and intimidation," Mr. Perkins said during a recent interview inside his Selma headquarters. "The mayor ran the city with an iron fist. People were afraid to challenge him. I want to be the Number 1 ambassador for the city."

Mr. Smitherman, who during the campaign said that a victory by Mr. Perkins might make white business owners leave town, now publicly wishes him well.

"Mr. Perkins ran a good race, a fair race," said Mr. Smitherman, a former appliance salesman who was seeking his 10th consecutive term. "He took the high road. If he'll be his own man, he'll do fine. I'll give him any help he needs, if he wants it."

Bloody Sunday

To better understand the significance of Mr. Perkins' election and Mr. Smitherman's now-conciliatory tone, one has to look back to Sunday, March 7, 1965.

A group of about 600 marchers, most of them black, led by John Lewis, who is now a congressman from Georgia, was preparing to walk from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery 44 miles away to lobby for voting rights.

The group planned to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on its way out of town. Waiting on the other side, however, was a contingent of state troopers and Dallas County (Alabama) sheriff's deputies clad in riot helmets and wielding billy clubs.

Moments later, the troopers and deputies, some on horses, attacked the protesters with clubs in a scene that has become one of the many horrific images of the civil rights movement.

That day, known as Bloody Sunday, shocked the nation and – after a successful march to Montgomery several days later led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – eventually led to the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allowed blacks to vote freely.

Because the actual attack occurred outside Selma's city limits, neither Mr. Smitherman nor local police were involved. Nevertheless, his segregationist views and his televised reference of referring to Dr. King as "Martin Luther Coon" – he says it was a slip of the tongue – permanently labeled Mr. Smitherman as the face of Selma's hate.

'I was wrong'

"I didn't have anything to do with it, but I get blamed for it," Mr. Smitherman said during an interview last week inside his city hall office, where Confederate and U.S. flags hang next to each other.

"I was a segregationist then, and I spoke out against the Voting Rights Act, and I spoke out against the march. I was wrong then, and I've said that."

As proof of his conversion, Mr. Smitherman proudly shows off pictures of himself taken through the years with several black celebrities such as Evander Holyfield, Redd Foxx, Charles Barkley and Joe Frazier. But he makes no mention to the Confederate flag.

And then, without prompting, he has his secretary play a tape of a 1995 Oprah Winfrey show in which both he and Mr. Lewis appeared. During the show Mr. Lewis – who Mr. Smitherman in 1965 referred to as "an outside agitator" but now calls him "one of the most courageous people I know" – speaks kindly of him.

In a telephone interview from Washington, Mr. Lewis, who was severely injured during the bridge confrontation 35 years ago, confirmed that he thinks Mr. Smitherman has changed.

"As he would say, he was on the wrong side of the movement 35 years ago, he was on the wrong side of history," Mr. Lewis said. "He has said to me, 'If I had been black and living in Selma, in 1963, 1964, 1965, I would have been right out there too.'"

On March 7, 1965, Mr. Lewis said, "if someone had told me that 35 years later a black man would be mayor of Selma, Alabama, I don't know what I would have said. It was a long time coming, but it just shows how things can change, and they can change in a lifetime."

Demographics shift

Mr. Smitherman, 70, said that a lot has changed in Selma since 1965, including the city's makeup. In 1960, whites represented a small majority of the population. Now blacks are a 59 percent majority.

Segregation laws at the time meant that fewer than 300 blacks were on the voting rolls when Mr. Smitherman was first elected in 1964. Now, they account for about 65 percent of the town's 15,000 registered voters.

And while an all-white government once ruled Selma, blacks now hold a 5-4 majority on the city council. In addition – and Mr. Smitherman takes all the credit for this – nine of the city's 10 department heads are black. He appointed all of them.

Despite the substantial gains by blacks, many in Selma still think that Mr. Smitherman, a crony of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, was a hindrance to progress in the city. That belief was so strong that a longtime community leader and lawyer, Rose Sanders, organized a grassroots effort known as "Joe Gotta Go." That campaign, separate from Mr. Perkins' mayoral effort, is credited in most local circles as providing the extra push that led to Mr. Smitherman's defeat.

The "Joe Gotta Go" campaign brought national figures such as Martin Luther King III and actor Sean Penn to Selma as well as support from the NAACP.

Ms. Sanders, the wife of a powerful Alabama state senator, isn't too well liked in Selma by some whites and blacks. But she said Mr. Perkins' victory has made life sweeter for her – and for Selma. "With all the criticism that was launched at me, I was validated when Joe Smitherman lost that election because it ignited a fire under the feet of people who had never gotten involved in the political process," Ms. Sanders said, noting that voter turnout was around 75 percent. "The eyes of the nation have been on Selma since the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But we had been losing for thirty-something years. We had to do something."

Comfort in oppression

Mr. Perkins also thought that change had to occur. A Selma native who left with the intent of not returning, he ran for mayor twice before defeating Mr. Smitherman. Previous attempts, like those of other black mayoral candidates, had failed even though blacks in Selma began to outnumber whites by the mid-1980s.

Mr. Perkins, who graduated with a degree in mathematics from Alabama A&M University, said that although blacks in Selma had some clout and political power by virtue of the population majority, they refused to use it. In fact, Mr. Smitherman's mayoral victories were in large part because of his ability to repeatedly court and win the black vote.

"Selma's greatest enemy was fear," Mr. Perkins said. "Smitherman was not our enemy. Racism was not our enemy. The fear of change was our enemy. You know, if you find comfort in oppression, then freedom feels uncomfortable. For 36 years, we were comfortable in our oppression."

One fear that Mr. Perkins hopes also will go away is one held by some whites in Selma that a black mayor will lead to the town's demise. Mr. Perkins noted that some of the things Mr. Smitherman had indicated might happen under a black mayor – a declining population, businesses leaving town and increased unemployment – already occurred during Mr. Smitherman's tenure.

For example, Selma's population stood at 28,385 in 1960. Today, it's officially 23,700, although Mr. Perkins thinks it's actually less than 22,000. The city's unemployment rate stands at about 10 percent – more than double the national average – and is even higher among blacks.

But white business owners and leaders say they don't plan to go anywhere once Mr. Perkins is sworn in Oct. 2.

"This is home to most people," said white Selma attorney William T. Faile, who witnessed Bloody Sunday as a law student. "I think most people are optimistic that the business climate will change for the better. I think people all over the city are ready for a change. He'll have white support."

President of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce Jamie D.Wallace said he has no doubt that after the national media spotlight has been turned off Selma, Mr. Perkins and the rest of the town will continue working toward erasing the bitter images of the city's racist past while building a future of inclusion.

"We're going to have to get past all the outside people giving their opinions," said Mr. Wallace, a member of Mr. Perkins' transition team.

"But we'll come together, and we'll make it work because there are good folks here, both black and white."