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Selma's longtime mayor in political fight of his life


SELMA, Ala. - After more than 30 years, Mayor Joseph T. Smitherman's high-wire act above the city's churning racial politics had begun to settle into routine. Every four years, he would hold barbecues in black neighborhoods, boasting about the number of black department heads he had appointed, while reminding white voters he would be "the last white mayor of Selma," hinting a black deluge was around the corner.

But this year, Smitherman has found himself in the fight of his life, forced for the first time into a runoff election - on Tuesday - against a black candidate, and the hints have become a bit less subtle.

Now, in the city that became the bloodstained symbol of the fight for voting rights, the former segregationist is promoting himself as the candidate of diversity, preventing city government from being engulfed by blacks.

"Everywhere that you've gone all black, the towns have gone down," he said, presenting several examples of black-run towns that he said have gone bankrupt. "You need white inclusion, you need diversity in the city government. Let's face it, the whites have the money, the white business people. They tend to pull back when it goes all black. So that's what I'm trying to get across to the blacks."

Racial politics in Selma have always been a few degrees more blunt than average, but many of the city's white business leaders - the ones supposedly heading for the door - shake their heads at Smitherman's argument.

Nonetheless, the mayor's arguments have proved remarkably effective over the years. Though he was mayor on that Sunday in March 1965 when sheriff's deputies and state troopers attacked hundreds of people marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for voting rights, he argued persuasively that he and his police had nothing to do with the beatings.

He has made a career out of renouncing his former support for segregation, making sure he spread city services evenly in black and white neighborhoods. Now age 70, he has been re-elected nine times since 1964, despite repeated efforts to unseat him by black candidates in a city of 21,000 that is now 65 percent black.

Last month, James Perkins Jr., a former computer consultant, came as close as anyone to defeating him. Perkins won 43 percent of the vote, 276 votes behind Smitherman at 46 percent. A second black candidate, City Councilman Yusuf Abdus-Salaam, won 10 percent of the vote, forcing the two leading candidates into a runoff Tuesday.

Salaam, who leads the city's Muslim community, has accused Perkins of "religious bigotry" and appears to side with the mayor.

Many residents say the mayor has not done enough to improve the city's economy, which has suffered like much of the rural South from a continuing drain of manufacturing jobs. Racial tensions continued to bubble.

Perkins and his supporters' main argument against Smitherman is that he has never really left his segregationist core.

This argument infuriates the mayor. Rummaging through his office, he pulls out a campaign flier showing that nine of 13 department heads are black. "They know I'm not the devil they say I am, but Selma's their mecca," Smitherman said. "They want Selma because this is where it all happened, where people got the right to vote."

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