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.

Smitherman would not comment, saying he rejects all interviews with nonlocal media. Of the potentially fraudulent absentee ballots, he says he wouldn’t have to cheat because, “I’m supported by both the black and the white communities…. I don’t have to fool with absentee votes.” On August 25 Smitherman threatened to sue Perkins for libel for saying his campaign cheats. But a stroll through poor black neighborhoods reveals that there is ample reason to think Perkins could argue truth as his defense.

Dorothy Pritchard, 37, a grocery store manager, said she believes her mother’s ballot was stolen from the Dunn Nursing Home, where she has resided since suffering a stroke that left her unable to write or speak a full sentence. The absentee election commission received a ballot for Smitherman, allegedly signed with an X by Pritchard’s mother and witnessed, as required if a voter is unable to sign her name because of illiteracy, by a city Water Authority employee. But Pritchard said, “She can’t even write the X.” Charles Hise, owner and administrator of the home, said it tries to monitor visitors but can’t restrict who comes in.

Irene Edward Woods, a former house cleaner who stopped working in 1982 after she developed diabetes, has neither a phone nor a car. So when an envelope arrived in the mail that had the word “election” on it, Woods said, she thought it was a registration form for absentee voters. She has difficulty understanding the text, although she can read single words. That same week, a person she described as a friend of a friend visited her and offered to fill out the form. “It was nice that they said they would help me vote, because sometimes it’s hard,” she said. Later, when Woods tried to vote, she was told she had already voted. “I know I wouldn’t have voted for Smitherman,” she said. “I remember how I was brought up. How my brother was during civil rights. They were beating him all the time. It didn’t make sense.”

Similarly, Matilda Jones, 82, said she never even signed her absentee ballot. Jones spends her days stretched out on a hospital bed at home and keeps her mail on a table in front of her. She leaves her door open for meals-on-wheels workers, but one day a woman she thought was a city official came to her house and “did a lot of talking. She messed with some things on my mail, and she walked out.” Later Jones filled out an absentee ballot to vote for Perkins, but the ballot was rejected because, according to the absentee ballot commission, she had already voted for Smitherman.

E.T. Rolison, executive assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, in Mobile, says fraudulent absentee balloting is “like a sport” in Alabama politics and that his most significant prosecutions have been against blacks, though in 1985 he lost the much-publicized Marion Three case against three veteran civil rights activists [see Ron Nixon, “Turning Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” November 15, 1999]. Although the Justice Department has observed elections in Selma over the years, Rolison said proving federal absentee ballot fraud is difficult unless someone from the inside can testify to the scheme; the elderly and infirm make terrible witnesses because they’re easily intimidated. “It is a battle of who interviewed ’em last,” he said.

In the face of such a lack of enthusiasm from officials, many of whom were appointed by Alabama Republicans calling for voter-fraud investigations of black voting-rights activists, it’s hard to see what will instigate change. Black leaders in Selma say their only chance in the current mayoral race is to get as many black voters to the polls as possible to counter Smitherman’s absentee ballot advantage (which will in all likelihood hold in the runoff, since voters almost always check a box in their initial ballots declaring that they want their choices to carry over in case of a runoff). If that effort proves unsuccessful, Selma will remain a prisoner of its own history, and blacks’ lack of true voting rights a shameful example of fear of change and sharing power. As J.L. Chestnut, a black Selma attorney, says of Smitherman, “He’s the last white hope.