4-17 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

The flames consumed more than just a town car. In a sense, they burned into every major media market in the United States and beyond.

Four years ago, citizens in Selma couldn’t drive a city block without hearing the screams of campaign workers. Wrought with a divisive history more paralyzing than any current event, Selma became a production stage for the world media.

The 2000 mayoral election pitting James Perkins Jr. against 35-year incumbent Joe Smitherman represented so much more than a debate on municipal issues. Perkins, a black businessman, was making his third run against Smitherman, a white man characterized as the same person who served as Selma’s mayor on Bloody Sunday in 1965.

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In every imaginable way, that political campaign evolved into a national symbol of racial progress. In few ways did it focus on the issues of a city.

And there I was — a 25-year-old managing editor responsible for the coverage of an international event.

One morning during that campaign, I walked into my frigid office and found a press release issued by supporters of the Perkins campaign. Sometime between the midnight hour when I left work the night before and that morning, a car parked outside of a pro-Perkins Selma business turned into chipped paint and seared leather.

The press release immediately declared the blaze a “car bomb.” Perkins’ supporters contended arson; Smitherman’s supporters said they weren’t that stupid. The national and international media didn’t care. Assignment editors couldn’t dream up a more sensational story than a car bomb in volatile Selma where the incumbent good-ol-boy wanted to fend off the black challenger.

For the most part, I confusingly led the editorial product of the local Selma newspaper. I was instructed to politely reject countless interview requests from just about every newspaper and TV network in the world. The Boston Globe, USA Today, the San Francisco Examiner and newspapers from London and Tokyo asked for the local editor’s thoughts on the election. Each time, I offered any sort of background information those newspapers requested, but gave no sit-down interviews.

Then, after getting permission from my boss, I broke policy and did a brief interview with NBC Nightly News about the election.

I don’t remember all the questions, nor do I recall the subsequent answers, save one. The NBC reporter, working hard to suck an inflammatory sound-bite from the white Selma managing editor, asked about the car bomb and the city’s reaction.

There was nothing to say about the fire because the state fire marshal had not completed his investigation. Instead, I looked at the reporter and gave her a pretty succinct answer.

“Most of us just want to be left alone. We want to sit on the front porch and drink sweet tea,” I told her.

Yes, that may sound a little too Southern for a national news broadcast, but there was a point — and one I want to share on the cusp of an ever-polarizing political campaign in West Alabama.

During that 2000 election, the majority of Selma’s citizens had no public input into the future of their city. Their concerns, whispered softly among friends and neighbors, were drowned under the roars of national organizations — including the media.

After Perkins beat Smitherman in a run-off, the cameras and laptops owned by media conglomerates disappeared. The national advocacy groups split town. Every hotel room was suddenly vacated. Left in Selma were the quiet voices of people who skimmed the help-wanted ads while sipping a glass of sweet tea. And all of a sudden, no one in the world cared about Selma except the Selma taxpayers.

In West Alabama, we face a number of important elections in the coming months. Whether it’s the race between U.S. Rep. Artur Davis and Albert Turner Jr., the district attorney’s contest between Greg Griggers and Barrown Lankster, or the mayoral election for each of our cities, the voters of West Alabama will pick the people who lead us the next four years.

While few elections will match the hysteria of the 2000 Selma mayoral race, voters in West Alabama must understand the gravity of every elected position.

First, you must educate yourself on the issues of each political debate.

Second, you must vote.

More important than all else, though, you must cautiously filter the outside influences on local elections. When outside organizations work to sway our votes, they usually have an outside motive. When someone from Montgomery directs you to vote a certain way, ask them why.

Four years ago, an alleged car bomb ignited one of Alabama’s most vicious political campaigns. An investigation of that crime yielded no arrests.