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After 36 years in office, Selma mayor voted out

SELMA, Alabama (CNN) -- In his first term as mayor of Selma, Joe Smitherman watched police beat civil rights demonstrators embarking on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

On Tuesday, after 36 years in office, Smitherman suffered a resounding defeat in the Democratic runoff.

Smitherman
"I was on the wrong side of history," Smitherman said  

Less than half an hour after polls closed here, the former segregationist conceded victory to James Perkins Jr., 47, an African-American computer consultant who had lost two prior attempts to win the mayor's office.

"I want to congratulate my opponent," Smitherman told supporters, many of whom hugged him. "This time there were just too many," he said, referring to black voters.

Smitherman said the victory belonged to Rose Sanders, a black activist who stirred many black residents to vote.

As he walked out the back door of his office here, Smitherman said he was going home. Accompanied by a motorcycle police escort to help him navigate through streets full of motorists honking their horns in celebration, Smitherman drove off.

During the 1960s civil-rights era, Smitherman was a segregationist. He served as mayor on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when civil-rights marchers were beaten by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

He had since renounced segregation, and the city's voters, more than 60 percent of whom are black, had re-elected him nine straight times, despite accusations of corruption and negligence.

"I was on the wrong side of history," Smitherman recalled earlier this week. He noted that nine of his department head appointees are black, including the city's police chief.

Perkins
Perkins rallies supporters in Selma before the vote  

"I don't know what else you can do -- a challenger, if he got in here -- other than make it all black," Smitherman said prior to the polls closing on Tuesday. "I think it would be very bad for Selma -- a city this size, not to have some white inclusion. We need some diversity," he said.

Prior to his loss Tuesday, he said white-owned businesses would leave town if he were to lose.

Smitherman had survived politically by winning nearly all of the white vote and a small portion of the black vote in previous elections. He said Perkins tried to make race an issue by "bringing people from California, the NAACP, Al Sharpton, all this crowd into Selma to try to affect the outcome of a city race."

Perkins said on Tuesday before the results were counted that race may not be an issue "in and of itself," but it's "a component of all the issues we have to address" in a city with such a tumultuous history.

"As we talk about education and economic development, race has a role to play, it has a part to play," he said.

CNN Correspondent Brian Cabell contributed to this report.

 
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Tuesday, September 12, 2000


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