Selma, Alabama, a touchstone in the civil rights movement, is frozen in a way that confounds onlookers. Despite the fact that blacks are now the majority of registered voters, they have been unable to unseat the very man who, as mayor in 1965, played a crucial role in keeping blacks away from the polls, making Selma known internationally as Hate City, USA. It turns out that equal access to the vote is no match for what critics charge is a well-oiled voter-fraud machine.
Back in 1965, Mayor Joe Smitherman, a renowned segregationist, watched with approval as state troopers with tear gas and batons attacked 600 marchers at the bridge over the Alabama River as they attempted to march to the capitol in Montgomery. The day, which became known as Bloody Sunday, was soon followed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final historic march to Montgomery. White America was moved. President Lyndon Johnson demanded that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus securing Selma’s legacy as a turning point in the fight for civil rights. Today blacks make up 65 percent of the town’s population of 24,000 and a majority of registered voters. Their right to vote, however, has not translated into political power. The same Mayor Smitherman who once called Dr. King “Martin Luther Coon” and explained it as a slip of the tongue is still in office.
On September 12 Smitherman, 70, will seek his tenth consecutive term in a runoff against a black candidate, local businessman James Perkins Jr. Blacks and whites agree that Smitherman wins by using a simple formula: a unified white vote and just enough black votes to win. The mystery is, How does he get those black votes? After all, resentment runs high in the black community over chronic shortchanging, exemplified by the dilapidated condition of Selma High School, which is almost entirely black. And the black community is organized with vote drives and a “Joe Gotta Go” campaign, in which volunteers chant and hand out fliers on street corners.
Many explain Smitherman’s success as traceable to his political acumen in courting blacks. In everything from barbecue-hopping to apologizing for his past prejudice on The Oprah Winfrey Show, his homespun style and humor endear him to certain black citizens, some of whom he invites into city government. Others point to what they describe as a history of violence associated with the mayor’s supporters. A reminder of that history, say Smitherman’s opponents, came August 27 when a truck owned by an employee of Selma’s only black law firm, which had been the headquarters of the Joe Gotta Go campaign, was torched in the firm’s parking lot. State fire marshals are conducting an investigation. Cecil Williamson, the mayor’s top campaign aide, told the Selma Times-Journal that he thought the torching might have been a publicity stunt by the mayor’s opponents.
But the real key to Smitherman’s success, many critics believe though they haven’t been able to prove it, is the systematic, fraudulent taking of the absentee ballots of poor, uneducated and elderly blacks and marking them for Smitherman. Indeed, in the August 22 balloting, in which Smitherman ran against three black candidates and no one got the requisite 51 percent, almost a fourth of Smitherman’s votes (1,034 of 4,352) came from absentee ballots. Perkins received only 330 absentee votes of 4,076.