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James Perkins Jr. Biography

Entered Newly Integrated Selma High School, Defeated in Early Runs for Mayor


Mayor, businessman

Perkins, James Jr., photograph. AP/Wide World Photos.

James Perkins, Jr., made history in 2000 when he became mayor of Selma, Alabama, marking a turning point in the city's long history of racism. Selma made international news in 1965 when African Americans began a march that would have taken them from Selma to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. As they began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met by Selma police, Alabama state troopers, and recently deputized local thugs. The authorities began to assault the group of marching people, which included children. Many were beaten by batons, coarsely fashioned clubs with barbed wire, and human fists. A few were trampled by galloping horses. As the marchers retreated, they were followed and continually assaulted even after they were safely inside the church, where the march began. Miraculously no one was killed in the incident, which came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

The people marched because they wanted to vote. They marched for equal rights for themselves and generations to come. Discouraged but not down, many turned on their TV sets, and relived the horror again as they saw friends and family being attacked. The troopers, police, mayor of Selma, and probably the governor of Alabama also watched with a malicious glee. Unbeknownst to the victims and the powers that be in Alabama, the country watched. No longer could many turn a blind eye to the injustices suffered by southern blacks. The evidence was there in black and white images on their television screens. Bloody Sunday was one of the major catalysts that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 being passed.

Although civil rights issues improved throughout the country, in Selma, Alabama, things were slow to change. The mayor of Selma on that fateful day in 1965 held fast to his position at the turn of the century. Mayor Joe Smitherman had been challenged over the years, but he finally met his match in his attempt for a tenth term. James Perkins, Jr., won the city's top position in 2000. A native son of Selma, Perkins had spent years developing enough support to oust Smitherman and his entrenched political machine.

Entered Newly Integrated Selma High School

James Perkins, Jr., was born to Etta and James Per-kins, Sr. in Selma, Alabama. He grew up in a time when segregation was law in the South. However, he also grew up during a time when change was beginning. He was not yet ten when the Selma march occurred. By the time Perkins entered high school, integration laws had passed, and he joined the first group of black children to enter the newly formed Selma High School, after the two high schools, A.G. Parish and R.B Hudson, were merged, bringing black and white students together for the first time. He was also among the first graduating class from Selma High School.

Perkins continued his education at historically black college, Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Alabama. He joined the Caterpillar Tractor Company as a computer programmer and later as a systems analyst. He left Caterpillar and joined the Martin Marietta Corporation as a project manager. In 1980 Perkins returned to Selma to begin his own computer consulting firm, Business Ventures, Inc. He also studied business administration at Auburn University in Selma.

Perkins and his wife, Cynthia, began to raise their four children in his hometown. Things were dire in Selma. Advancement for blacks crept along, despite two thirds of Selma's 20,000 residents being African American. To Perkins it was time for things to change. A number of others agreed. Frederick Reese, a life-long activist ran for the office of mayor in 1984. Perkins served as his campaign manager. Although Reese lost the election, Perkins remained committed to political advocacy, involving himself more and more.

Defeated in Early Runs for Mayor

In 1992 Perkins ran for mayor for the first time. He was trounced by Smitherman. Perkins ran again four years later, but could not muster up enough votes to unseat the incumbent. But signs of his progress were beginning to show. Perkins' political pressure forced Smitherman's political machine to work overtime to keep him as mayor. Smitherman made several concessions to endear himself to his black constituents. He held barbecues in black neighborhoods as well as appointed several blacks to high-profile positions in his administration, including chief of police. He also denounced his segregationist past.

After Smitherman's second win over Perkins, allegations surfaced against Smitherman for committing voter fraud by using absentee ballots sent to illiterate blacks and senior citizens who needed assistance to vote. These ballots needed to be witnessed in order to be valid. Perkins called for an investigation. Although fraud was never proven, Perkins had succeeded in denting Smitherman's political machine.

Perkins continued his quest to become mayor of Selma. Smitherman continued courting black voters and using scare tactics to keep white voters coming to the polls in full force. Smitherman also used the racial division in the city to his advantage by speaking about other cities that declined after electing a black mayor. He warned that industry would leave if Selma elected Perkins. Smitherman even included a radio commercial aimed at the black community that spoke of the decline in the other cities because of their African American leadership. Perkins countered by stating in the New York Times, "This is obviously a mayor who's panicking."

Used New Strategies for Third Mayoral Race

By the time Perkins ran for mayor a third time, Smitherman's political machine had begun to crumble. His nephew, along with the former police chief, and former city clerk were charged with embezzling $700,000 from the city. White city business leaders disagreed with Smitherman's antics. "Joe Smitherman can call up Armageddon as well as any Southern preacher, and that's what he's doing,'" Richard P. Morthland, chairman and chief executive of The Peoples Bank and Trust Company told the Financial Times. "I don't know of any business that would leave town just because we have a black mayor."

At a Glance …

Born 1953(?) in Selma, AL; son of James, Sr. and Etta Perkins; married Cynthia; children: four. Education: Alabama A&M University, Huntsville, AL, BA, mathematics; studied business administration, Auburn University, Selma, AL.

Career: Caterpillar Tractor Company, Peoria, IL, computer programmer, systems analyst, 1970s; Martin Marietta Corporation, project manager, late 1970s; Business Ventures, Inc., company founder, 1980–; Selma, AL, mayor, 2000–.

Selected memberships: Selma Public Schools System, Drug Advisory Council; Alabama New South Coalition; Auburn University African-American Enterprise Commission, board of directors; Fathers Active in Children's Education, treasurer; Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Selma branch, vice president.

Addresses: Home—Selma, AL. Office—P.O. Box 450, Selma, AL 36701.

Perkins also had help from various grassroots campaigns, including the 21st Century Youth Leadership Organization, and the New South Coalition. These organizations went door to door, held voter registration drives that included speakers from around the country and musical acts. With new chants that included "Joe Gotta Go!," the efforts of the organizations gave hope to many of the disenfranchised blacks that lived in Selma.

On Election Day, Perkins garnered 43 percent of the vote, while Smitherman received 46 percent. A third candidate, Yusuf Abdus-Salaam, also got ten percent of the votes. Since no candidate achieved the required 51 percent to become mayor, a runoff election was scheduled for the following month. Everyone involved in ousting Mayor Joe Smitherman went into overdrive.

Won Mayoral Election

When the run-off elections took place, 2,000 more people came out to vote. In the end, Perkins received 57 percent of the votes to Smitherman's 43 percent. Smitherman's 35-year mayoral career was over. His former black constituents partied in the streets, honking horns and dancing into the wee hours of the night. In his acceptance speech quoted in the Associated Press, reprinted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee's the Oak Ridger, "Many have said and many have felt that this was about James Perkins and Joe Smitherman. That's not true. Many have said it's about black and white. That ain't so. This campaign has been about faith and fear. Faith won this campaign."

Perkins' first years as mayor were not without difficulty. Months following his election, during a march to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, marchers tried to take down a statue that honored a Confederate soldier who was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Later, vandals broke into the National Voting Rights Museum, where historic photos were torn and a Ku Klux Klan hood was taken down. Moreover, Perkins was removed from a city water board post. He also lost the power to veto the City Council, something Smitherman had brought about when he began appointing black city council members. Perkins, though challenged by three opponents, including one white mayoral candidate, won re-election to a second term in 2004. As he worked to improve relations between Selma's black and white residents, as well as to bring some much needed jobs to the area, James Perkins showed himself to be an indomitable leader who used all his strength and ingenuity to complete the tasks set before him.



Associated Press, January 21, 2001.

Ebony, November 2000, p. 10.

Financial Times, September 14, 2000, p. 11.

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), January 21, 2001, p. A3.

Houston Chronicle, September 18, 2000, p. 22.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 3, 2000, p. 6.

Nation, September 18, 2000.

Newsweek, August 8, 2005.

New York Times, September 10, 2000, pp. L18, N18.

Oak Ridger (Oak Ridge, TN), September 13, 2000.

St. Louis Dispatch, August 22, 2004, p. A02.


"History, Justice, Surprise: A Story," Common Dreams News Center, www.commondreams.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?file=/views03/1023-15.htm (September 30, 2005).

"Mayor of Selma Joins CU Forum in Anabel Taylor," The Cornell Chronicle, www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/01/10.4.01/Selma_mayor.html (September 30, 2005).

"Selma, Alabama, Elects First African American Mayor in a Tense Battle for Human Rights," Gainesville Iguana, www.afn.org/∼iguana/archives/2000_10/20001013.html (September 30, 2005).

"Selma Is Still Selma," Nation, www.thenation.com/doc/20000918/bach (September 30, 2005).

"Selma Mayor to Speak at AU as Part of King Day Celebration," Auburn University News, www.auburn.edu/administration/univrel/news/archive/1_01news/01_01perkins.html (September 30, 2005).

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