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Selma, Ala., mayor faces racial divide in first week

SELMA, ALA. — SELMA, Ala. - Not even a week into his term as Selma's first black mayor, James Perkins Jr. had to stand face to face with a cast-iron reminder of his town's openly racist ways.

There, under one of the arching, graying oak trees that line the streets and make Selma feel as old as it is, glared Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who died 123 years ago.

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No matter the great cavalry man had been reduced to a hollow bust and block of granite. His defiant scowl, like many relics of the past here, was inescapable.

Many of Selma's black residents were furious. Forrest wasn't simply a Confederate general; he was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Worse, the group that unveiled the statue decorated it with a Confederate battle flag and somehow won the right to stick the statue in a black neighborhood on a piece of city-owned property.

"What good judgment to do this my first week in office," Perkins said wryly. "If I remove the statue, whites will be upset. If I don't, blacks will be angry."

Swept into office last month by an energy untapped since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Perkins is learning how easy it is to get squeezed between the narrowing sides of the racial vise.

Part of the problem is Selma's stubborn sense of history.

The town, full of antebellum mansions and old stores and old stories, has a motto painted on billboards and printed in tourist books: "History Lives in Selma." Some of that history, though, is clearly offensive.

But the 47-year-old mayor, a computer consultant who has never held office before, is intent on doing what few other politicians, white or black, North or South, are inclined to do. He wants to confront his community's past. He wants to wipe out de facto segregation in the city's polarized schools. He wants to chip away at generations of distrust.

While blacks have heralded Perkins as their savior - "the man took the shackles off us," said Charles Dickson, a Selma machine operator - many white residents are anxious. For the last 36 years, Selma, which is 65 percent black, had one white mayor, a former refrigerator salesman and one-time segregationist named Joe Smitherman.

It may not be the law, but segregation in still the rule in Selma. Here, there are two sets of everything. There are the all-black bars and the all-white bars, the black grocery stores and the white ones, the public high school that is 98.7 percent black and the two private academies in town that are pure white. There's the black Baptist church and the white Baptist church, the black cemetery and, across town, the white one.

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There are similar stories in many small Southern cities. But Selma, population 24,000, has the added burden of being a place where people paid a heavy price for racial equality.

On March 7, 1965, state troopers gassed and beat scores of civil rights demonstrators as they attempted to leave Selma and march to Montgomery to demand the unimpeded right to vote.

That day is now remembered as Bloody Sunday, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.

Enraged by the beatings, Congress pushed through civil rights legislation. And, under federal protection, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of people from Selma to Montgomery to complete the march.

The saddest thing about looking back, Perkins said, is that so little has changed.

"When I returned from Birmingham in 1991," Perkins said, "I couldn't stand Selma for what it was. Nothing had happened since civil rights. If we weren't going to be anything but a segregated school system and a segregated town, why had we sacrificed so much?"

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The $25,000 statue was placed behind a city-run museum that was a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. The mayor didn't even know about the unveiling. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans showed up in battle grays and gave speeches celebrating the Old South.

Benny Austin, a statue supporter, said the statue celebrated Forrest's valor in trying to defend Selma, not his Klan work. The mayor wasn't invited to the unveiling, which had been planned for months, Austin said, because there were fears it could become "a little controversial."

Perkins takes the statue issue - the timing, the way he was blindsided, the idea that a group of people in this era would put a Klan founder literally on a pedestal, as a personal affront.

"I'll be fair, but I'll be firm," said Perkins, who has told the Sons of Confederate Veterans that the statue must be moved to an alternative location. It's not clear whether the mayor has the authority to order the removal.

The statue supporters say they have no plans to move the 10,000-pound monument.


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