updated 9/12/2005 2:40:50 AM ET 2005-09-12T06:40:50

Former Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, who held office for decades during the turbulent civil rights era, died Sunday. He was 75.

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Smitherman died in a Montgomery hospital. Tom Kelly of Lawrence Brown Service Funeral Home did not know the cause of the former mayor’s death.

Smitherman had suffered from a heart condition and underwent hip surgery after a fall at his home.

A former appliance salesman, Smitherman was a 34-year-old city councilman when first elected mayor in 1964 as a segregationist.

At the time, only about 150 blacks were registered to vote in Selma. Six months later, marchers seeking equal voting rights were beaten by police on a Selma bridge in what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The violence galvanized the nation and led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. Selma would become known as the birthplace of black voting rights in the South.

At the time, Smitherman was opposed to blacks voting in large numbers and once referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “Martin Luther Coon.” He claimed it was a slip of the tongue.

Like his friend and mentor, the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Smitherman eventually apologized for his segregationist past and in later years openly campaigned for black votes. He bragged that he appointed nine black department heads, including a black police chief.

He was defeated in 2000 by James Perkins, an information technology consultant who became the city’s first black mayor. By that time, black voters made up at least 65 percent of Selma’s electorate.

Smitherman had not been active in politics since leaving office, Williamson said.

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