October 10, 2001

First African-American Mayor Stresses Unity

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“I’m going to put it down where the goats can get it,” said James Perkins Jr.

Perkins, the first African American mayor of Selma, Ala., offered advice on “governing divided communities” to the Cornell and Ithaca audiences during his first visit to central New York.

Later in an interview with The Sun, the Mayor drew from his experience in Selma to “put it down where the goats” could get it — to encourage dialogue on the segmentation of society in their own communities as well as in history.

As he participated in various activities across campus and in greater Ithaca, Perkins spread his message that “the commonality within a community is its moral value system,” reiterating Selma’s goal of reconciliation rather than revenge.

Selma, one of the hotbeds of social and political action during the Civil Rights Movement, has faced economic and social struggles resulting from the obstacles that came with integration and an increasing migration from the city to the suburbs — problems that were not solved despite the strides made since the 1960s.

“It seemed that years ago, once the walls of segregation were brought down, that would open the door … but the lines of division have become deeper,” said Prof. James Turner, Africana Studies and Research Center, at the forum last week.

Turner pointed to the idea that many communities, upon electing an African American mayor, expected the office to lead to an immediate increase in power for minorities.

“I don’t think that many people understand the dynamics of the South right now; we’re in a huge transition and we’re realizing that it’s the level of communication that makes a difference. I don’t think any of the African Americans in Selma holds any white person responsible for what happened 100 years ago,” Perkins said.

Although the demographics have changed significantly, the city of Selma still suffers from a great divide along racial lines which is hinged in the longstanding beliefs and attitudes of its citizens.

“I think people are recovering from all of that. It’s hard to break tradition and to heal all these old wounds. The order of the day is really reconciling these differences and understanding why we went through these troubling times,” Perkins said.

He emphasized the responsibility of the individual, especially the elected official, to be “consistent in their behavior” as well as focused on their own actions and how they respond to the actions of others.

“It was very striking to me, the emphasis [Perkins] placed on individual initiative in racially charged situations. His philosophy seemed to be that the right response was one measured against an individual’s morality” said Prof. Michael Jones-Correa, government, who was on the panel of commentators at the forum.

“Regardless of what we do in public life we can’t please all of our constituents all the time … ultimately, we can only be responsible for our own actions and the consistency of our actions,” Perkins said.

Perkins defeated incumbant mayor Joe Smitherson last year. Smitherson, a former segregationist, took office in 1964, just before the “Bloody Sunday” riots when peaceful marchers from Selma to Montgomery were met with violent opposition.

Supporters nationwide attempted to fortify voting numbers in Selma for the mayoral race — in a city that once fought simply for the right to vote, low turnout numbers prevented Perkins’ election for two straight years before he finally won.

The third election campaign was fueled in part by college students and activists from across the country who visited Selma to inspire voter registration.

“He wanted to throw in the towel after the second election,” said Perkins’ advisor Amos E. Moore.

“But we wouldn’t let him,” chimed in advisor Jimmy Martin.

It was the third election that Perkins finally won, ousting Smitherson with voter turnout at 50 percent.

“We had a really strong support base; people heard our message and rallied around it. Busloads of supporters came from everywhere trying to get people to register to vote,” Perkins said.

“I think he was interested in coming [to Cornell] because he’s been very involved with students; college students played a big role in his election,” said Robert L. Harris, vice provost of diversity and faculty development last week.

During the former mayor’s tenure, Selma changed little despite the vast social and political changes that took place in the nation, according to Perkins.

“Not a lot of work had been done for the infrastructure of the community — it was maintaining the status quo. Old money and old guard ruled … it was not well managed but it was very well controlled,” Perkins said of the old regime.

“I was born and reared in Selma,” he said. “I went back home to see if I could make a difference because it hadn’t changed a lot for the better.”

In addition to the suffering social and political institutions, Perkins also inherited an outdated technology system, a “teletype word processor,” and a “1970 phone system.”

Perkins was invited to the University by the Cornell Political Forum and the Office of Diversity and Faculty Development to share his experience in Selma in the aftermath of major demographic changes.

“Selma is a very unique community, they don’t mind letting you know just how they think. … People see us engaging in heated and passionate public discussion; I think that is healthy and it has put Selma in a position to be a leader for truth and reconciliation in our time,” he said.

Perkins addressed another of the major problems facing Selma, so-called “white flight.” Instead of focusing on the migration of white citizens out of the city, the Mayor instead pointed to the increasing trend of leaving the city in favor of the suburbs among the entire Selma population.

“I don’t try to stop ‘white flight,’ I try to stop all flight,” he said.

Perkins participated in last Thursday’s forum with Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 and provided insight by specifically referring to his own community’s history.

During his barely-two-day visit to central New York, Perkins spent time at local schools and at the University engaging in a dialogue about the social and political relationships that exist in segmented communities.

“I really got a sense that he was thinking about the questions rather than giving a canned response,” said Jones-Correa of Perkins’ presentation at the forum.

“He reminded [the Cornell community] of the questions — and they were deep questions — of how we confront inequality, what kinds of responsibilities we have to the community and to ourselves … and we all have different answers,” he added.

Archived article by Alison Thomas