October 3, 2001

Mayor of Selma, Alabama Will Attend Ithaca Forum

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By Alison Thomas

Cornell will continue to foster the socially divided communities both on and off campus this week as the University hosts James Perkins Jr., the mayor of Selma, Ala. Perkins is the first African American mayor in the history of the city, which was one of the hotbeds of violence during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Perkins will participate in a forum with Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 on Thursday to “examine segmented or divided communities,” according to Robert L. Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, who has helped to plan the visit.

“There will be an interesting parallel between the two mayors — they both run small cities and face similar challenges — we thought it would be interesting to contrast their experiences in creating a sense of community” among a divided constituency, according to Josh Farber ’02, a member of the Cornell Political Forum, an organization that is co-sponsoring the visit.

Both Farber and Harris noted the political and social differences of their respective cities. While Selma has been concerned with the “historic dichotomy along racial lines,” Ithaca also faces ethnic and class issues, primarily involving its growing Asian American and Latino communities, according to Harris.

Perkins ousted incumbent and former segregationist Joe Smitherman in September of 2000. Smitherman took office in 1964, just before the famous “Bloody Sunday,” when activists were beaten during a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. during the civil rights struggle.

Perkins was elected in his third year running for the mayoral seat due in part to the concerted political efforts of students in Selma.

“I think he was interested in coming because he’s been very involved with students; college students played a big role in his election in terms of their efforts to get people registered and getting people to turn out to vote,” said Harris.

“It was a turning point when Perkins was elected,” said Farber.

Despite the victory, racial tensions remain in Selma, and “white flight” continues to drain the urban population as white citizens leave the African-American majority in the city for the suburbs, according to Harris.

The events of Mayor Perkins’ visit include the forum tomorrow at 5 p.m. in the Anabel Taylor Hall Auditorium. Perkins and Cohen will present their respective experiences, and Prof. James Turner, Africana Studies and Research Center, and Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, government, will interview the mayors. Audience members will have the opportunity to offer comments or to ask questions. Perkins will also speak at the Alternative Community School of Ithaca at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Archived article by Alison Thomas