October 5, 2001

Perkins Delivers a Lesson From Own Page in History

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James Perkins, Jr., mayor of Selma, Ala. joined Ithaca Mayor Alan J. Cohen ’81 in a forum entitled “Governing Divided Communities” to discuss the involvement of local governments in resolving problems of segmented communities.

Panelists Prof. James Turner, Africana Studies and Research Center; Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, government; and Alison Thomas ’02, managing editor of The Sun provided questions and engaged the mayors in a discussion about the history of desegregation and its impact on smaller communities.

Perkins is the first African American mayor of Selma — the site of the famous “Bloody Sunday” march that led to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Perkins ran three times for the mayoral seat, finally defeating the incumbent segregationist last year.

Perkins and Cohen spoke about their experiences with racial segregation in their communities and their political strategies for addressing racial divisiveness.

“As political leaders, we need to demonstrate behavior that is consistent with what we believe,” Perkins said. “When we are saying one thing and doing something else it causes a great deal of confusion.”

“You can’t control what people say or do or how they think. But you can control what you are doing yourself if you want the outcome to change,” Perkins said.

While Perkins emphasized that political leaders need to maintain a consistent response to the issues of divisiveness, Cohen expressed his views that education and growth are key to overcoming hardships in a community.

“One of the basic ways we have of reconciling conflict is by awareness and education. People need to engage the issues on a personal level and take a class, read a book or attend a cultural festival,” Cohen said.

Although the mayors share common interests in entrepreneurship and business, they face very different economic issues in their respective communities.

As Turner noted, the economic disparity between races and classes in America poses one of the greatest challenges to political leaders of smaller communities.

“Politics has not been particularly effective in the redistribution of wealth. We’ve been unable to find an answer to how we’re going to share the resources of access and privilege,” Turner said.

Turner cited historical examples of other African-American mayors who encountered difficulty resolving racial problems in cities such as Atlanta, Cleveland and Baltimore.

“As we look at the experience of black mayors, what we’ve found is that the problems [of divided communities] have become much more intractable. Fault lines of division have become deeper,” Turner said.

Perkins responded by noting many of the advancements made by affirmative action.

“The dilemma as I see it is not the issue of self-help. As a people we have been well-integrated on the demand side, but on the supply side we have fallen way short,” said Perkins.

“Regardless of what we do in public life we cannot always please all of our constituents,” he added.

Drawing from his experience in Selma, Perkins emphasized principles of teaching by example and non-violence.

“Someone has to take the last lick. You can’t stop fighting otherwise. It’s necessary to put reconciliation over revenge,” he said.

Cohen and Perkins acknowledged that they share many of the same views toward resolving racial conflict in their communities even though Ithaca has a very different population than Selma.

“When you hear me talk and I sound a lot like Alan [Cohen] that is because I am a member of the majority of the population that I govern, just as Mayor Cohen [is],” said Perkins, noting that Selma’s population is 65 percent African-American.

When asked for insights on how his philosophy might apply to the Cornell community, Perkins offered advice based on his own experience.

“Complaints are the first step to progress. You have to look at a complaint as an opportunity to improve the quality of life,” he said.

Cornellians at the forum responded positively to the event and the presentations of the mayors.

“I felt as though Mayor Perkins’ style was very personal and refreshing. He wasn’t trying to sound official or political. It wasn’t a prepared speech that he had given hundreds of times. His ideas were raw and that made the speech more real and more intimate,” said Ines Thieme ’02, who attended the forum.

“I was surprised to learn about the differences of the mayorships in respective areas, and especially the political battles that exist in Ithaca,” said Becky Johns ’02, who is a member of the Cornell Political Forum.

Perkins’ visit to Cornell was organized by the Cornell Political Forum and the Office of Diversity and Faculty Development. The Political Forum is an organization that sponsors debates on important issues such as affirmative action and civil rights.

Archived article by Dan Webb