Even as a child I had a hard time seeing the America I heard about on TV and in patriotic songs. I grew up in a small place where white children called me “nigger” on a regular basis. I knew their parents weren't far behind.
I grew up in Selma, Alabama—ground zero in the struggle for voting rights. It was my hometown in 1965 when organizers made history with a high-profile march from Selma to Montgomery to bring attention to the discriminatory policies that kept blacks from voting. The march was undertaken three times before Alabama state troopers allowed protesters to reach Montgomery. On the first try, known as “Bloody Sunday,” peaceful marchers were beaten bloody by troopers entrusted to protect them—for the “crime” of demanding the vote.
That was when many Americans first met Joe Smitherman, who was mayor of Selma at the time marchers were being beaten and civil rights activists were being assasinated. Smitherman once referred to Martin Luther King, Jr. as Martin Luther “Coon” (years later recanting it as a “slip of the tongue”).
This was the America I knew—African Americans had few rights that whites respected. We had a mayor who had shown himself to be hostile to black citizens, but the people were too scared, too tired, and too hopeless to vote him out of office. So Smitherman served throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
When I turned 15, I was sure that there must be some lie about American democracy. A group of us were protesting the school board because they instituted tracking or ability grouping in our schools as a way to avoid desegregation. They would place African American students in the “lower” ability classes to keep them away from whites in the same school. That way they could say the schools were integrated when all they did was segregate the best resources of the school away from African Americans.
We eventually took over our school for five days and four nights, only to end up having to negotiate with the mayor instead of the school board he hand picked. This was the same mayor who arrested me as a teenager for handing out a flyer and arrested passersby for honking their horns for equal education in the 1990s. Free speech—Ha! Democracy was nowhere to be found in Joe Smitherman's Selma. Things had to change.
In 2000, convinced that the spirit of truth and justice would prevail, we embarked on the “Joe Gotta Go” campaign and the “Get Your Vote On” campaign for young people. Finally, at the beginning of the 21st century we thought we might be able to taste a little bit of freedom.
When we first began, a few months before the elections, we would hold “Joe Gotta Go” signs and ask Selmians to honk their horns “if Joe Gotta Go.” People would often give us blank stares. They certainly weren't ready to go up against the notorious Joe T. Smitherman. When I first started knocking on doors to register people to vote or to encourage them to go out to the polls, I got responses like, “I might vote in a state or national election, but I will never vote in a local election. I know Smitherman is gonna die in office.”
We kept on holding those signs anyway, in 104-degree weather. We knew that these were many of the same people or their descendants who met billy clubs, water hoses, and the hooves of horses during Bloody Sunday for the right to vote their convictions. Certainly, we could meet Smitherman's intimidation with courage and use the vote we fought so hard to win.
It started as a trickle. First, a few horns blew back at our “Joe Gotta Go” signs, and then there were many. It went from a few doors opening in my community with heads nodding ‘cause “Joe Gotta Go” to folks by the thousands jumping out the door to exclaim, “You right girl! Joe do Gotta Go!” There was hope in the eyes of my people for the first time since the 1990s movement to end tracking.
Then, the stories started pouring in about how Joe Smitherman was able to maintain his position even after the demographics shifted in our town from predominantly white to predominantly black. We began to understand how in past elections, we would go to sleep with one winner and wake up to Smitherman instead, due to questionable uses of absentee ballots. In several affidavits taken in preparation for a lawsuit against the mayor following his re-election in 1992, for example, numerous people said that workers for the Mayor's office either bribed them for their votes or forged their signatures on absentee ballots, according to an investigative report published in the Nation. [See Nixon, R. “Turning Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” The Nation, November 15, 1999.]
We believed Smitherman and his supporters were capable of anything. People who were involved in civil rights protests told us he had them fired from their jobs. People told us their mortgages had been called in by Smitherman's friends, who owned the local banks. He even was heard to say on more than one occasion that the only reason he stopped the local whites from killing us was because he had learned a few lessons from the 1960s, and murders of activists only brought more outside agitators into town. After decades of beatings, murders, and yes, you could call it terrorism against the African-American people of Selma, there was a great deal of fear about the simple matter of casting a ballot. So, when a successful campaign by James Perkins, an African-American businessman, forced Smitherman into the first run-off of his political career in August 2000, we prepared for the worst.
Smitherman started his counterattack by taking out an ad suggesting that no white businesses would stay in Selma with a black man as mayor, so there would be no jobs. He then began to visit black churches in order to spread his message of fear. This was ironic, because in Selma there are churches that black people cannot join. The opposition and retaliation moved beyond verbal threats. Someone fire-bombed two cars at my parents' office. The cars had “Joe Gotta Go” signs on them, and my Mom has been the major force against Smitherman for the last 25 years. People understood that they were being targeted.
The efforts at intimidation backfired. Instead, it made people—as the late, venerable organizer Fannie Lou Hamer used to say—“sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Public reports of the violence and intimidation also brought national attention and help. Ex-political prisoner Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt came to our aid, and he brought actor Sean Penn along to speak at our rally. After hip-hop journalist Davey D put the fire-bombing and other information on his website, many progressive entertainers called to help: Queen Latifah, M.C. Lyte, the Outlaws from slain rap artist Tupac Shakur's group, and others.
We asked artists to cut public service announcements encouraging young people to go out and vote. These spots, along with Latosha Brown's strategy of going to football games and teen hangout spots with “Get Your Vote On” balloons and candy, really had an amazing effect on young people. I remember how they first looked at me when I tried to pick them up off the streets to vote in the first election. The very next month during the run-off they came out in droves, some on the day of the election, busted up into polling places hands raised in the air saying, “What's up? I came here to vote today ‘cause Joe Gotta Go!” They weren't even registered, but they were inspired.
In the early days of the campaign, I often wondered whether the oppressive conditions of Selma were just a figment of my own analysis because the people here seemed so uninspired to oust Smitherman. I realized later that people only needed the spirit of hope combined with inspired “people power” and the timing of “Greater power” to overcome their worst fears and make lasting changes a reality.
On that bright September election day, people came out of office buildings, pool halls, churches, crack houses, and everything in between to end nearly 40 years of Joe Smitherman's rule. They began gathering on the main thoroughfare even before the polls closed to chant “Joe Gotta Go! Joe Gotta Go! Joe Gotta Go!” It was amazing to see the growing crowd of those willing to stand in the face of this oppressive regime. More and more people began to gather to shout their hopes and dreams for a new Selma: “Joe Gotta Go! Joe Gotta Go!”
When the elections results came in, it was clear that WE WON! People were crying, jumping up and down, and dancing in the streets. It was the most exciting moment in the last 40 years for the people of this town. I could see the chains of American racism falling away—from the Middle Passage, to slavery, to Jim Crow—because in that moment we had won, even if we still had a long, long way to go.
And it was final when Joe Smitherman told CNN and the world, “Y'all said Joe Gotta Go. Joe's Gone!”
I told reporters then, “Don't think that this story is unique to Selma, because it isn't.” Two months later, the whole world questioned whether American democracy was a sham when the presidential elections came under a cloud of similar suspicion. Whether it's Selma, Miami, or Brooklyn, there are American towns where democracy is not much more than an old song and a dream. That's all democracy can be unless we come together and fight for it.