Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis captured the headlines, it was the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson that inspired the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.
After fighting in the Vietnam War, Jackson had returned home to Marion, Ala., which also happens to be the birthplace of Coretta Scott King, about 30 miles northwest of Selma in the soil-rich Black Belt region of Alabama. Although Blacks made up a majority of Black Belt counties, they were less than 1 percent of the registered voters.
A pulpwood worker, Jackson had attempted five times to register, none successfully. In an effort to expand voter registration in the area, James Orange, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field organizer, and George Best of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had moved to Perry County in early 1965. Before long, local residents were trying to register to vote, most of them for the first time.
On Feb. 18, Orange, who included students in the movement, was arrested, allegedly for contributing to delinquency of minors. That set off a round of protests.
Shortly after being released from jail in Selma, C. T. Vivian of SCLC was sent to Marion to address a mass meeting at Zion Chapel Methodist Church. The plan was to hold a night march to the jail, which would cover less than the length of a football field, to demand James Orange’s release. If confronted by police, demonstrators were instructed to kneel in prayer and return to the church.
But White law enforcement officials had another plan.
In his excellent book, Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South, Charles E. Fager recounted:
“But when the preachers at the head of the line came out of the door, the sidewalk was lined with helmeted state troopers, long, black billy clubs at the ready, and they were stopped less than a half block down. ‘This is an unlawful assembly,’ the police chief announced over a public address system. ‘You are hereby ordered to disperse. Go home or go back to the church.’
“Just then all of the street lights around the square went out, and troopers began clubbing the Rev. James Dobynes, a black minister at the front of the line.”
NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani was knocked to the ground, bleeding from a head wound, and another journalist, UPI photographer Pete Fisher, was also beaten and his camera was smashed into tiny pieces.
“The panicked crowd tried to get back into the church, but the doors were jammed full and the people spilled around it down a side street, taking cover wherever they could,” Fager wrote. “The troopers came after them, clubs swinging, splitting scalps and smashing ribs as they advanced. Two or three dozen people rushed through the doors of Mack’s Café, a few doors down, seeking refuge in its crowded, dark interior. Among them were Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man of twenty-six years old, his mother, Viola and his grandfather Cager Lee, eighty-two. The old man had already been caught and beaten behind the church, and was bleeding.
“His grandson was helping him out of the door to get medical attention when a squad of troopers came toward them, chasing and beating people before them, and forced the two men back into the café. The troopers came inside, smashed all the lights within reach and began clubbing people indiscriminately. When one hit Viola and knocked her screaming to the floor, Jimmie Lee lunged at him. The trooper struck him across the face, and the young Jackson went careening into the floor himself. Then a trooper picked him up and slammed him against a cigarette machine while another trooper, a man named Fowler, drew his pistol and calmly shot Jackson point blank in the stomach.”
The author noted, “Jackson didn’t realize he had been shot until a few moments later, because the troopers continued beating him and the others unmercifully.”
Someone took Jackson to the Perry County Hospital. He was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, where he died a week later.
The state trooper, James Bonard Fowler, was not charged until May 10, 2007 as a result of a cold case investigation. He pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to only six months in jail.
According to Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning At Canaan’s Edge, although Dr. King had preached many funerals by then, a reporter noticed “a tear glistened from the corner of his eye as he rose to speak.”
King deplored “the cowardice of every Negro” who “stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.” King said, “Jimmie Lee Jackson is speaking to us from the casket and he is saying to us that we must substitute courage for caution…We must not be bitter, and we must not harbor ideas of retaliation with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers.”
Whatever its purported shortcomings, the movie “Selma,” allows Jimmie Lee Jackson to continue speaking to us from the grave.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.