Former Selma mayor, reformist dies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Staff Report / BNI Newswire

Joe T. Smitherman, the man who led the city of Selma through three and a half decades of racial turmoil, reconciliation and growth, died Sunday at a Montgomery hospital. He was 75.

Smitherman served as mayor of the City of Selma for more than 35 years, first taking the oath of office only six months before the 1965 march known as “Bloody Sunday” catapulted Selma into the national spotlight. He was reviled by some as a segregationist and loved by others who thought he only had the best of Selma at heart.

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Some people dubbed Smitherman as a segregationist in the tumultuous 1960s, but Smitherman said he was a moderate who had to walk the fine line between those who wanted immediate change and those who wanted to keep things the same.

Eventually, even some of Smitherman’s most ardent opponents came to peace with the man.

State Rep. Yusef Salaam, once an adversary, said he learned from the former mayor as the two worked together to govern.

“There were people, black and white, who tried to demonize him, but it’s not that simple. He was a complex man with many strengths and weaknesses,” Salaam said. “Smitherman was astute in terms of political skills. He had a deep understanding of municipal government.”

Smitherman was heavily criticized throughout his political career for comments and views on segregation that mostly surfaced early in his career. Later in life, Smitherman apologized for the early comments and lobbied heavily for support from black voters during the 2000 election.

Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr., who defeated Smitherman in 2000, said he and Smitherman had made peace and the city will give the former mayor the honor he deserves.

“The city of Selma will appropriately respond,” Perkins said. “I’m pleased to say that the mayor and I had made peace. I hope the spirit of the Lord is with him.”

Smitherman was born Dec. 23, 1929, in Alberta, the son of Thomas Joseph and Minnie S. Smitherman. The youngest of six children, Smitherman never knew his father, who died when Smitherman was still an infant. The Smithermans relocated to Selma shortly after the birth of baby Joe.

Watching his mother raise six children alone, Smitherman learned a healthy respect for single mothers.

“He had a great respect for motherhood,” long-time assistant Warren Hinson said. “My (role) as a mother came first for him.”

Smitherman graduated from Albert G. Parrish High School in 1948. He worked briefly as a railroad brakeman before serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. After his military service, Smitherman returned to Selma and began a career in retail appliance sales, eventually becoming owner of Home Appliance Company.

Smitherman first entered public service after he won a seat on the Selma City Council in 1960. Four years later he ran for mayor and won.

Smitherman said he tried to walk a delicate line, balancing the need for change against the fight to keep the status quo.

Despite some early controversies, Smitherman was the first mayor of Selma to appoint blacks to lead city departments.

“He did far more good than harm,” City Council President Pro Tem Jean Martin said. “He was the man who reached into the black community and began to appoint black department heads for the city.”

Friends and former co-workers say much of Smitherman’s criticism was unwarranted.

“He got a lot of criticisms but most of it he didn’t deserve. He came up tough and poor,” Kim Ballard said, Dallas County Commissioner and former Selma city councilman. “He was a good keeper of the keys. He was always about what was good for Selma. I knew better then to cross him because he was right more times than he was wrong.”

Smitherman was never afraid to fight for what he thought was right for Selma, former co-workers said.

In 1974, the same year the city broke ground on a new municipal complex, Smitherman threatened to sue the Alabama Public Service Commission unless they withdrew a pass-on fuel charge from Alabama Power.

A few years later in 1978, he blocked two railroad crossings until the railroad companies agreed to repair the tracks.

He even filed suit against the federal government in 1979 to help reclaim all the land left vacant by the closure of Craig Air Force Base. The government eventually gave up the land and it became Craig Field Industrial Park.

Smitherman was at the forefront of historic preservation.

His friendship with Larry Striplin helped lead to the restoration of the Henderson House, a 1914 movie house known as the Walton Theatre and the St. James Hotel.

Smitherman was at the helm of the city for more than three decades, except for a brief stint after he resigned in August 1979. The following year, he ran again and won.

“He ran his office like he lived – energetic and off his hip,” said Jimmie Guthrie, who played high school football with Smitherman before working with him for 20 years as the head of the city’s parks and recreation department. “If he made a decision, that decision pretty much stuck.”