Through the years

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Selma TImes-Journal

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part series looking at Mayor Joe T. Smitherman’s time in office by decade.

Combining current interviews from the people that knew and worked with him and the mayor’s own opinions taken from old interviews, we hope to paint a more complete picture of the man’s legacy.

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City Councilman Joe T. Smitherman assumed the office of Mayor on Oct. 4, 1964.

The Beatles were big, the war in Vietnam was growing on the horizon and the American South was rife with the tension of serious political, social and racial change.

Aside from the obvious social situations, things were done differently in 1964.

Smitherman said when he took office, he had to get keys made for City Hall, the city didn’t have an actual budget to speak of, the majority of streets in town were unpaved and lacked sewerage and the mayor quickly found out that the city had spent $100,000 more than it had taken in the year before.

“It doesn’t take a magician to know that won’t work,” Smitherman said.

County Commissioner Kim Ballard said Smitherman was a natural fit to straighten out the city budget.

“Joe had just beat the establishment as a young big-eared politician when I came to Selma,” Ballard said. “He had a wonderful mind for figures.”

Smitherman, who’d won by 500 votes in an election that featured more than 4,500 voters, said at the time he took office “some racial activity” had already taken place.

In December of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced his plans to come to Selma.

Smitherman said Selma was the perfect location for King’s mission.

“You had good actors.

You had the natural setting and everything,” he said. “It was an old city, King Cotton and all that. The vast majority of people were black in the surrounding area. It typified the agrarian South.

And, there were only 250 registered black voters and 9,000 registered white voters and a 60 percent black population.”

Smitherman admitted to playing politics with the situation.

He said he did things as mayor that he didn’t personally agree with. He said that politically, he had to win by losing.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Admittedly a former segregationist, Smitherman also said he was a moderate who took some political risks, even as a young politician.

“When I became mayor I said my door would always be open to all citizens of Selma – black and white,” he said. “It was a hard statement from a white man in those days.”

History has been unkind to the former mayor for his stances in the ’60’s.

Before he was beaten in the 2000 election, critics leveled heavy criticisms his way.

He was painted as the same kind of old guard politicians he had beaten in his first election 36 years before

“He got a lot of criticisms but must of it he didn’t deserve, he came up tough and poor,” Ballard said. “Long range history will perceive Joe very well.”

In 1964, race quickly became the predominant issue the 35-year-old mayor had to deal with.

“Mainly my first three or four months in office, there was nothing but marches,” he said. “We struggled, met with groups, tried to counter things.”

Smitherman found himself caught in the middle of a law enforcement power struggle. His friend – Sheriff Jim Clark was vehemently opposed to Smitherman naming Wilson Baker as Selma’s public safety director.

Clark, Smitherman said, feared Baker was after his job because Baker had run against him in the previous election.

Clark, and his crew of possemen, have become infamous for their tactics, including the beatings during the “Bloody Sunday” march.

But, in 1979, Smitherman said, Clark was following the wishes of the “loudest voices.”

“Lots of people like to blame everything on Jim Clark,” Smitherman said, “but he was generally expressing the attitudes of whites.”

Baker, however, was a voice of moderation.

In fact, Smitherman said, Baker refused to allow Selma policemen to stand with the county and state troopers on the Selmont side of the bridge.

“Cecil Jackson, who was the governor’s executive secretary, told me the governor said there would be no violence.

He said they would see that Al Lingo (who headed the state troopers) and Clark both stayed away.

Cecil said the governor would put a veteran state trooper in charge of stopping the marchers and there would be no violence,” he said. “I realized it would be a good political move to have a token number of Selma policemen at the scene.

Baker told me it would not work out that way.

“There would be violence, he said, and refused to put the policemen over there.

I fired him and later re-hired him and we put the policemen over there.”

The rest is history.

Marching two-by-two, the lines of people led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams reached the officers who told them to go back.

Lewis asked for time to pray and knelt down.

Moments later he was struck and mayhem broke loose.

“Baker was right.

Lingo was not kept in Montgomery, he slipped over and Clark, who was in Washington, flew back.

I think (Clark) heaved the first canister of tear gas before the marchers even had time to retreat.

“Right there under the Selma National Bank sign saying ‘Selma Friendliest City in the South’ it looked like Vietnam with all that smoke, people running, troopers wading in and posse members on horses.”

Smitherman said the marchers were routed back towards the church, to keep anyone from breaking windows on Broad Street.

“Some of the posse members went crazy and I think tried to ride their horses into Brown Chapel Church,” he said. “That’s when some black people got their guns and that’s when (The Rev. F.D.) Reese held them back.”

Reese had actually supported Smitherman’s candidacy, saying he had the potential for dynamic leadership and was the lesser of evils.

After Smitherman’s death, Reese called him a good administrator.

“He was very efficient,” Reese said. “We were able to work together for the good of the community. Selma will miss him.”

King called for federal relief and President Lyndon Johnson ordered that the marchers be allowed to go to Montgomery.

Eventually the Voting Rights Act was passed.

Smitherman said as ugly as the struggle was, it helped Selma.

“We changed as only upheaval of this sort can allow you to change in such a quick fashion,” Smitherman said. “The town won, as time is proving.”

There is little doubt that Smitherman helped it win.

After life began to calm down in Selma in 1966, Smitherman had more typically mayoral problems to overcome.

He did things that the taxpayers could see, made improvements in the city they could not miss.

The city needed a solution for its lack of sewerage and Smitherman instituted a sales tax to pay for a new facility.

“Smitherman was astute in terms of political skills,” said state representative Yusef Salaam. “He had a deep understanding of municipal government.”

“I had pressure to build a sewage disposal plant and the city was broke,” Smitherman said. “So I put a one cent sales tax to balance the budget, to make capital improvements, to build fire stations.

I believed in doing things the people could see, to see where their tax dollars went.”

After Smitherman’s death this weekend, his high school friend Jimmy Guthrie said the mayor’s energetic approach to leadership made the difference.

“He ran his office like he lived – energetic and off his hip,” Guthrie said. “If he made a decision, that decision pretty much stuck.

He probably loved Selma more than anybody that ever lived here.”

“We had to build a $4 million sewage disposal plant. It was a tremendous feat,” he said. “We had to float bonds and pay for it through the sales tax and capital improvement fund. We did things like pave streets.”

People took notice.

Smitherman won again in 1968 and firmly entrenched himself as Selma’s mayor for the next three decades.

“Smitherman was an eager beaver,” former city councilman Cap Swift said this week, “ready to do his share.

He was a mighty good mayor.”

Smitherman was ahead of his time in other ways as well. He said he began seeking federal dollars before it was popular to do so.

“I used the George Wallace approach – we send our tax dollars to Washington, we deserve to get some back,” he said.