Selma Elects First Black Mayor

ByBob Johnson

S E L M A, Ala., Sept. 13, 2000 -- Businessman James Perkins was elected mayor, becoming the first black to win the office in a city whereblood was shed in a 1965 crusade that opened voting booths toblacks across the South.

Perkins, 47, defeated Mayor Joe Smitherman, a formersegregationist seeking his 10th straight term in the non-partisanrunoff.

Tuesday’s vote was Perkins’ third attempt to knock Smitherman out of office.

With all but absentee ballots counted, Perkins had 5,668 votes,or about 60 percent. Smitherman had 3,712, or about 40 percent.

Segregationist From Old EraThe 70-year-old Smitherman first took office about six monthsbefore the historic voting rights marches of 1965, and managed tohold onto the office over the years as the electorate went fromnearly all-white to 65 percent black.

He had won in recent years by getting almost all the white votesand some black votes.

“Some have said that this campaign was about black and white,but I stand here to tell you that ain’t so. This campaign has beenabout faith and fear. Faith won this campaign,” Perkins toldsupporters in a victory speech.

“Mr. Perkins ran a good race and I respect him,” Smithermansaid. “I will not contest the result.”

Only about 150 blacks were registered to vote in 1964 whenSmitherman was first elected. At the time, he opposed blacks votingin large numbers and once referred to the Rev. Martin Luther KingJr. as “Martin Luther Coon” in what he claimed was a slip of thetongue.

Modest Campaign, Big resultsOnly months after his election, deputies and troopers attackedvoting rights marchers with clubs and tear gas in an event thatdrew the nation’s attention to the ensuing Selma-to-Montgomerymarch and helped lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Like his friend and mentor, the late Gov. George Wallace,Smitherman later apologized for his segregationist past and inrecent years openly campaigned for black votes. He bragged that heappointed nine black department heads, including a black policechief.

In a mayoral election Aug. 22, he trailed badly among blacks andfor the first time in 10 elections did not get the 50 percentneeded to avoid a runoff.

Perkins, an information technology consultant, ran his campaignfrom a small house behind his home. His campaign has featuredmostly young volunteers standing on street corners in Selma’storrid summer heat holding placards and chanting, “Joe’s GottaGo!”

The political climate in Selma has been controversial since theelection in August, with charges of abuse involving absenteeballots and calls by both candidates for federal and stateobservers for Tuesday’s runoff.

Two Justice Department lawyers were sent to Selma to field anycomplaints.

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