Selma steps away from its troubled past

James Perkins Jr. grew up here with a well-defined sense of his place. Because he was black, he used the back door or shopped in the basement at downtown retail stores. Because he was black, he sat in a different waiting room and attended a separate school.

Now, he's a symbol of how much times have changed - in Selma as well as the South. Mr. Perkins will be sworn in today as the first black mayor of Selma, a town infamous for for its ugly resistance to civil rights. He soundly defeated incumbent Joe Smitherman, a reformed segregationist who held the office for 35 years.

The computer consultant will take office after a weekend of parades, picnics, and prayer services - a buildup to an event that some consider the biggest news to hit Selma since slavery fell.

"His victory gives many people a sign of hope, not just in Selma, but in Alabama and the rest of the world," says the Rev. Frederick Douglas "F.D."

Reese, Perkins's pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. "Selma, as I see it, has been chosen to be ... a beacon of a brighter tomorrow."

After all, Selma isn't just another Southern town overcoming the a Jim Crow past. It's the home of Bloody Sunday, one of the civil rights movement's most pivotal clashes.

Voting-rights marchers had set off from Selma on March 7, 1965, planning to walk 50 miles to the capital. But they were stopped by state troopers and county deputies wielding whips, night sticks, and tear gas.

Three weeks later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a second march from Selma, this time going all the way to the state capitol. Later that year, the Voting Rights Act opened the ballot box to blacks across the South.

The new mayor was 12 at the time of the march, and his parents wouldn't let him take part. But the family supported the cause and attended mass meetings that often accompanied the protests, says Synethia Pettaway, Perkins's sister.

Just as the events shaped the future of the South, they shaped Perkins's life.

He grew up in relative privilege, his father a teacher and his mother a nurse. But at the time, skin color was the defining measure of a person, overriding virtually every other yardstick.

"We were never around any whites," Mrs. Pettaway says.

That changed when federal courts began chiseling away at the South's racial barriers. In 1971, Perkins was a member of the first integrated graduating class in Selma's public schools.

For college, he chose historically black Alabama A&M University and studied computer science. Most of his adult life, he alternated between his own business in Selma and out-of-state programming jobs.

Perkins came home for good in 1990, with his eyes on political office. By then, blacks held a voting majority - but the same man who had been mayor on Bloody Sunday continued to run Selma.

Perkins first challenged Mr. Smitherman in 1992, then again in 1996. By the time Perkins ran this year, he had scaled back his private business and focused almost entirely on the mayor's race.

Even with blacks making up about 65 percent of the town's 15,000 registered voters, the incumbent was no easy target. Smitherman had long ago renounced his racist views, had promoted blacks to many top city posts, and had a history of winning just enough black votes to stay in power.

But the nine-term mayor also gave ammunition at times to critics who portrayed him as a relic of the Old South. During this year's campaign, Smitherman claimed that Perkins would hire only blacks at City Hall and would scare off white businesses.

When the ballots were counted, Perkins had won 57 percent of a record 11,000 votes cast.

White ministers and elected officials came out to support Perkins in a ceremony Saturday, but the change in Selma appears to be less the result of a change of heart among whites and more the result of the demographic shift and increased black activism.

The election returns reflected a stark racial split, and so did the early reactions. Blacks danced in the streets, proclaiming Perkins's victory to be the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Teary-eyed whites viewed the revelry and predicted Selma's imminent decline, with Jack Smitherman, the defeated mayor's nephew, predicting Selma would go broke in a year and become a "monkey town." (The former mayor, however, was gracious in defeat.)

Perkins acknowledges that feelings still run strong: "The citizens went to the polls on election day carrying with them a tremendous amount of passion - personal feelings of either faith for a better future or a fear of change."

In his first public address, he urged residents to lay aside historic differences to solve the current problems in Alabama's "black belt," a region named for its rich soil but known for its poverty.

In Selma, the self-styled capital of the black belt, the jobless rate is stuck in double digits. Almost half of all school children are poor, and the population is dwindling. Moreover, public schools in the town of 22,000 are virtually all black, almost as segregated today as they were in 1965.

Perkins is promising a multiracial commission to study the town's problems. An outspoken proponent of Christian views, he is falling back on his religious faith to help him guide the fractured city - he has tapped his preacher as his transition chief.

The mayor-elect steadfastly believes his city can be united. "The masses of people are generally good people," Perkins says. "And I believe the masses of us want to go in the same direction."

"We'll work with him - if we don't, we won't progress," said Jean Martin, one of three whites on the nine-member City Council. Later, addressing Saturday's crowd, she added: "We're a good town that has had some hard times, and a lot of us were responsible for some of that. But this is a new day in Selma."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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