Selma, Alabama, elects first African American mayor in a tense battle for human rights
Dave Lippman
October 2000

In Selma, Alabama, there actually is an intersection of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King streets. As a spot for a polling place, it asks an obvious question about which way Selma wants to go in the 21st century. The answer, by 57% in a runoff election with a record turnout, is Selma's first African American mayor, James Perkins, Jr.

On March 7, 1955, 600 black voting rights activists began a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma, they were met by sheriff's deputies and state troopers who dispersed them with tear gas and nightsticks. 'Bloody Sunday' became the catalyst for the federal Voting Rights Act. The mayor of Selma that Sunday was Joseph T. Smitherman, a young man who continued to hold that post for 36 years. His reign came to a turbulent finish Tuesday, September 12; the Voting Rights Act having finally become reality.

The high voter turnout, concentrated in the black community, which now comprises 65 percent of the registered voters, was the work of the 'Joe Gotta Go' campaign, a community effort featuring noisy car caravans winding through black neighborhoods and national assistance with voter turnout from the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and college students from across the South. The Smitherman campaign called the presence of the outsiders an unnecessary interference. But black activists countered with allegations of persistent electoral fraud and voter intimidation and bribery.' In 1992 there were many sworn affidavits of forged ballot signatures and vote-buying, but the government failed to investigate, and accusations re-surfaced in the regular election this year, including the relocation of polling stations. Selma has done so much for the world, said locals; now it was time for the world to help Selma.

During Smitherman's tenure, Selma has had the highest unemployment in the state, disproportionately affecting the black community. Whites deserted the public schools, leaving them 99% African American. Smitherman has practiced a sometimes subtle and suave form of white supremacy, keeping the old boy network in control while posing for pictures with national black leaders and claiming to be the champion of all Selmians. Some years ago a number of blacks were elected to the city council. The last act of the old white-dominated council was to give the Mayor veto power; there is already talk of rescinding that veto power now that the new Mayor may use it to help the dispossessed.

The Smitherman campaign was clearly aimed at galvanizing the white vote, with the Mayor alleging that "Blacks don't have the concept of working within budgets." He repeatedly warned that business would leave town under a black Mayor. This from the man who claimed he had had a change of heart since referring to 'Martin Luther Coon' in 1965. Even after the vote, Smitherman's nephew Jack kept up the drumbeat, saying "It's going to be a monkey-town." Dirty tricks abounded; a radio commercial featured a black man saying that when black people get into office, the city dies. The man whose voices graced the ad now says he was tricked into this, and he wants to make a counter-commercial.

James Perkins, Jr. received only 200 white votes. The possibility that local whites would face retribution for violating the white wall of silence was one reason black activists called for white support from the outside--to give people hope, a sense of the possibility of cross-racial friendship and solidarity. What will it take to break the solidity of the white bloc? Perhaps if Selma grows, if the jobs fail to flee, if new and more varied businesses--with the encouragement of national black leadership - come to town, people will see what they've seen in other cities that elect black mayors. Racial animosity is not increased when black officials are elected. It is increased when communities are suppressed.

The participation of youth was also decisive. Groups like the 21st Century Youth Leadership Organization, a national organization based in Selma, energized the black community with rhythmic street chants like 'Everybody, everybody get your vote on!' 'I say Tuesday, you say Vote!', and the ubiquitous community motto, 'Joe gotta go!' A surge of excitement and hyperactivity swept the community. Mass meetings in parks and churches featured gospel music with brand new civil rights lyrics, continuing a tradition that characterized the struggles of the 1960s. Standing in the midst of a spontaneous street party that begin immediately after the polls closed, youth organizer Felicia Pettaway enthused, 'It's a great way to start off the 21st century. It is so great to feel hope again.'

In fact, many locals commented that the sixties were being born again, that they were seeing people they hadn't seen since for decades and feeling a spirit that had long been missing. Rev. Fredrick Reese, who first asked Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to Selma in 1965, stood stately and beaming next to the new Mayor. Lillie Brown, 70, of Birmingham, had been here too. She had nearly gotten in the car with Viola Liuzzo, the 'Detroit housewife' civil rights volunteer; an hour later three Klansmen shot Liuzzo dead. Thirty-five years later 'Mama Lillie' was in the street, embracing friends old and new and shouting 'Joe Gone!' Legendary Birmingham activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth came; so did former Black Panther Geronimo ji jaga, Kathleen Cleaver's daughter Joju, and actor Sean Penn--all ignored by the press.

And so we return to the opening question: why did the white man cross the road? I often ask myself this. As Rev. Randel Osburn of the SCLC put it, 'When you fight for black people, you fight for all people.' This may seem more than a little strange in a country where blacks and whites have often felt their interests to be pitted against each other. But if you reflect for a moment on the old adages, 'An injury to one is an injury to all, and 'As long as one is not free, none are free,' it begins to add up. As Selma resident Gwendolyn Smith Shaw told me, 'It's gonna take a while for white Selma to realize that it's not a bad thing for a black person to be mayor. Because it's about justice for all people, which it has been all along.'

Finally, I simply do not want to live in a country poisoned by permanent hostility between the races. That hostility is based in a history not only of misunderstanding but also of deliberate disenfranchisement. Whatever faults and foibles there may be in the black community, that is for them to sort out. It is for us on the white side of town to stand up and be counted as people who desire justice for all, not just for ourselves. We need humility about our country's history and our role in it, and we need the pride that comes from standing up and making a difference. It is a way for us to grow, to learn that we can love people who are not exactly like ourselves--people who are our neighbors, though their cultures are different from ours in some ways. We do not have an option; we must stand up. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the only thing to do. It is our hope for the future.

The last time I was in Selma, Alabama was in 1972, traveling across the South with a group of activists making a movie, which never came out, thankfully. Our group was received with traditional Southern hospitality everywhere throughout the South, except in Selma. We sat down in a cafe right next to the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where voting rights marchers had been gassed and beaten on Bloody Sunday, seven years before. The atmosphere was so thick I had to stand outside to collect myself. On the street I met an elderly black man in overalls who had worked all his life in Chicago--'Second worst place in the world'--before retiring back to Selma.

Twenty-eight years later I returned to find the cafe had burned down and been replaced by a plaque commemorating Bloody Sunday.

Dave Lippman is a musician and writer living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

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