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Perkins, James, Jr.(1953–) - Mayor, Becomes Politically Active, Chronology, Perkins’ Plans for Selma

smitherman alabama black african

Title: Perkins, James, Jr.(1953–)

Mayor

On March 7, 1965, Selma, Alabama was thrust into international headlines. Approximately six hundred voter rights activists organized a march from Selma to Montgomery. As the activists crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by sheriff deputies and Alabama state troopers who sprayed the marchers with tear gas and beat them with nightsticks as they left the bridge. The term “Bloody Sunday” was used to describe the incident, which later became the catalyst for the passing of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enabled far wider registration of black voters.

On that fatal day in March, James Perkins Jr. was only twelve years old, and as he remembers, he was safe and secure in the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, with eyes filled with tears because his mother would not permit him to join the marchers. Thirty-five years later, Selma, Alabama would elect Perkins as its first African American mayor. A Selma businessman, Perkins defeated the incumbent Joseph Smitherman, the seventy-year-old white former segregationist who was seeking his tenth consecutive term as mayor and who had been mayor of Selma during the 1965 march.

Perkins’ parents, James Perkins Sr., a teacher in the Selma school system, and Etta Perkins, a nurse, were active community leaders. James Perkins Jr. was among the first group of black students to enter Selma High School, formed from the merger of R. B. Hudson and A. G. Parrish high schools. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. Perkins’ professional experience included that of a computer programmer and systems analyst for Caterpillar Tractor in Peoria, Illinois, and project manager for Martin Marietta. In 1980, he returned to Selma and opened his own technology-consulting firm, Business Ventures Inc.. Perkins married Cynthia Page, a parent facilitator in the Selma public school system, in 1984 and they are the parents of four children.

Becomes Politically Active

Perkins became impatient with the progress of integration in Selma. Smitherman had made token progress by appointing several African Americans to government administrative positions. Perkins decided that becoming involved in the political system was the most effective means for radical change. This decision led him to seek the office of mayor of Selma, challenging Smitherman’s political machine. In 1964, at the time of his first election as mayor of Selma, there were only about 150 blacks registered to vote in the city, and he opposed African Americans voting in large numbers. After that time, the population of Selma had changed from being almost entirely white to about 65 percent African Americans. Somehow, Smitherman managed to retain his position as mayor by gaining all the white votes along with support from some blacks. Smitherman was also an early friend and protégé of the late former Alabama governor George Wallace, who was a key segregationist of the 1960s.

In 1996, Perkins ran for the second time against Smitherman and was defeated. Because there were two black opponents, the vote was split and Smitherman managed to survive once again. With his second defeat, Perkins was ready to call it quits because he felt that it was impossible to win. A group of community supporters convinced him to reconsider his decision while attending a dinner reception. In addition, Perkins’ wife encouraged him.

Perkins challenged Smitherman again in 2000, campaigning under the slogan, “Joe’s Gotta Go!” Perkins was victorious, receiving 57 percent of the votes. The figures verified that more than 75 percent of the city’s estimated 14,000 registered voters went to the polls. His supporters flooded the streets, honking horns, shouting and singing.

The victory election was the result of a broad-based coalition of black churches, community organizations, labor, and youth. The NAACP was also in the forefront, testing out its voter empowerment project in Selma. The result of the election noted that there were a heavier percentage of white voters voting against Smitherman, who had been afraid to vote against him in the past. Some thought that the race was about black and white. Perkins said that it was about faith and fear. Faith won this campaign, Perkins told about five hundred of his supporters.

Chronology

1953

Born in Selma, Alabama

1980

Establishes technology-consulting firm, Business Ventures Inc.

1984

Marries Cynthia Page

1996

Defeated in election for mayor of Selma

2000

Wins election for mayor

2004

Re-elected mayor

At the time of Perkins’ third attempt, Smitherman apologized for his past and openly campaigned for black votes, appointing blacks to jobs in the town administration. Although considered a moderate segregationist when he was first elected in 1964, at the end of his thirty-fifth year, his last act as mayor was to push through the Selma city council funding for a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan. He recommended it to be placed on public property in front of the Smitherman Museum.

Perkins’ Plans for Selma

Perkins inherited a city with a high unemployment rate and falling population. His ambition was to turn the city around, making Selma a tourist spot for families, letting the world know that the Selma of 2000 was very different from the Selma of 1965. One of Perkins’ first acts as the new mayor was to push through a bill canceling funding for the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument to white supremacy.

Ebony magazine quoted Perkins as saying that he wanted “to put the ominous event of the Edmund Pettus Bridge into perspective. It is a part of Selma’s history, the nation’s history, but it will no longer be the first thing people think of when they mention this city.” In 2004, Perkins was re-elected mayor of Selma, Alabama.

Perkins was a member of the Drug Advisory Council to the Selma public school system, the Alabama New South Coalition, the Board of Directors of the Auburn University African-American Enterprise Commission, and the Selma-Dallas County Economic Development Authority. Perkins served as treasurer of Fathers Active in Children’s Education, and he was one of the co-founders of the Selma-Dallas County Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail Friends Association. He was also vice president of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in Selma and a Little League baseball coach.

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