The man who referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as "Martin Luther Coon" on national television in 1965 is still the mayor of Selma, Alabama. But on September 12, Mayor Joe Smitherman will face the most serious challenge of his 37-year reign.
In the initial election on August 22, Mayor Smitherman received 4,345 votes while his principal opponent, James Perkins Jr., a black businessman and lifelong Selma resident, garnered 4,065 votes. Another black challenger, Yusef Salaam, got 1,019 votes.
Selma on my Mind
In 1965, activists made history with the now famous march from Selma to Montgomery. The goal of the more than 50-mile trek was to bring attention to the discriminatory policies that kept blacks from voting. Led by Mayor Smitherman, racists managed to halt the march twice before a federal court order forced Alabama state troopers to allow protesters to reach Montgomery, the state capitol.
Televised images of the first march attempt, known as "Bloody Sunday," burned in America's living rooms: peaceful marchers beaten bloody by troopers entrusted to protect them -- for the "crime" of demanding the vote. As current mayoral challenger Perkins states, "The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was written on the streets of Selma."
On that "Bloody Sunday" Mayor Smitherman became famous, starring in the march drama as the leading unrepentant racist. He not only acted boldly to prevent blacks from voting, he even encouraged violent retaliation against blacks who pushed the issue.
Change of Heart?
Thirty-five years later, Smitherman, who declined to be interviewed for this article, proclaims a "change of heart." He boasts about the number of black appointments he's made and calls black congressman and former SNCC activist John Lewis his friend.
One impetus for Smitherman's attempted image makeover is that the number of blacks registered to vote has increased from less than 100 in 1965 to about 9,000 today. Black voters in Selma now outnumber whites by 3,000.
Years of grassroots organizing and voter registration have led to the current "Joe Gotta Go" campaign to unseat Smitherman. Thanks to these efforts, black voter registration and turnout are up since Perkins' narrow loss to Smitherman four years ago by 325 votes. Perkins is confident he will soon become Selma's first black mayor.
"I'll win because people are finally fed up enough to act and vote differently. There are people here who act like Joe Smitherman is doing them a favor just by doing his job, and there are always people who are afraid of change. Better the oppression you know then taking a chance on change. But change is what I represent, and I believe the majority of Selma voters want change."
Commenting on facing his first runoff ever, Smitherman told the Montgomery Adverstiser, "The black support just wasn't there this time." Some question whether Smitherman ever got much black support, as allegations of voter fraud have hovered over his camp for more than a decade.
Fraud in the Air
Opponents say that Smitherman supporters actively work to prevent blacks from voting. Rose Sanders, a civil rights lawyer and leading proponent of the "Joe Gotta Go" campaign, was met by six police officers when she tried to vote in the August 22 election. A voting inspector reported that at least 37 blacks had been turned away from that site alone. A witness with a video camera was reportedly pushed out of the room by a second voting inspector during the fracas over Sanders' voting.
"Smitherman has used all kinds of tricks and ruses to keep the people of Selma from realizing the promises of the Voting Rights Act," says Sanders. "It's outrageous that the U.S. Department of Justice will not investigate the fact that he got 1,000 absentee votes on August 22. Yet, they came here to harass and intimidate black politicians who Smitherman accused of voter fraud."
A November 15, 1999 investigative report by Ron Nixon in The Nation confirms Sanders' allegations. An examination of federal and state records found that only one white person since 1965 has been indicted and prosecuted in Alabama for voter fraud -- and she was helping a black voter.
Smitherman was also accused of misusing absentee ballots in 1992, when numerous people swore in affidavits that the Mayor's office either forged their signatures or bribed them for votes. A man named Henry Kirk said in a sworn statement that a worker for Smitherman offered him "a half gallon of Thunderbird wine, a half case of Milwaukee's Best Beer and two packs of Newport cigarettes" in exchange for his vote. Both state and federal officials have refused to investigate complaints against Smitherman.
Renowned Selma lawyer and activist J. L. Chestnut told Nixon, "We've said for years that [he] was operating like this, buying votes. This is the one time he got caught, and even then the government did nothing. Is this selective prosecution? You tell me."
Sanders agrees, "There should be a national outcry from politicians, lawyers, and religious people demanding an investigation into yesterday's vote. And it needs to happen now, before Smitherman can steal the election on September 12th."
Sanders and other community organizers are issuing an international call for a "Return to Selma" to take the next step on the march begun 35 years ago. For them, Smitherman is still standing in the door of the courthouse blocking blacks from the polls -- and must be stopped.
"We need monitors and international observers here as soon as possible," says Sanders. "Selma is unfinished business for the civil rights movement, for this country. That's why people come here. That's why people care what happens here. We wanted racial justice activists to come in the sixties to help the people here overcome their fears and get a sense of their own power and the national support they had. We need that again now."