Remembering Mayor Smitherman

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A quick Internet search for the name Joe T. Smitherman hints at how history views the man who Selma’s mayor just months before the tensions surrounding the civil rights movement in Selma boiled over into the now infamous “Bloody Sunday” March.

“Former segregationist” site after site labels the man who served for more than 35 years as mayor of Selma.

And while that label was true, even Smitherman himself admitted to it, it in no way can sum the true story of the man. In some ways, Smitherman was simply unlucky to become mayor in 1964.

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He inherited a situation, not of his making, that by his own admission he hadn’t developed the political strength to deal with.

A self-proclaimed moderate, Smitherman admits he had to play politics to survive.

“We changed as only an upheaval of this sort can allow you to change in such a quick fashion,” he said. “I fought change and all the while I was for it. A political stance is often different from your personal beliefs. I had to politically lose as I was winning. You can sometimes win by losing.

“In retrospect there were thousands of things I could have done to have helped the situation or even stopped it, but my political strength then, my immaturity and the actors involved decided it.”

That Smitherman survived and went on to serve Selma for another 36 years speaks to his political ability, which was tremendous.

It speaks to his sharp mind, which is legendary.

And it speaks to his ability to reach across the racial barriers and build relationships that lasted longer than his nearly four decades in office.

Hopefully history will build a fuller picture of the man in time. Perhaps we’re still too close to the 2000 election for historians to gather a clear view of Smitherman’s legacy.

Perhaps in another 20 years, he will be bettered remembered for the things that happened after 1965 and before 2000, than the tumultuous years that began and ended his tenure.

For 36 years (including a brief retirement in 1979), Joe Smitherman served this city and its people to the best of his ability.

For that, we offer our gratitude and join the thousands today that mourn his passing.