The power of progressive, democratic change
By Lee A. Daniels
It tolls for Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old black Alabamian, an “ordinary man” whose desire to gain the full measure of his American citizenship led first to tragedy and then to black Americans’ triumph.
Jackson was shot in 1965 by an Alabama state trooper amidst the chaos caused by the police attacking peaceful demonstrators during a civil rights protest in Marion, Ala. He was taken to a hospital and lingered for several days before succumbing to his wounds. News reports at the time stated that before he died Jackson identified the trooper who shot him.
His death in February 1965 broke the back of the segregationist resistance to the civil rights movement in Alabama. It led to the first attempt of civil rights activists to march from nearby Selma to the state capitol at Montgomery to demand full voting rights. The resulting police brutality against the nonviolent marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7 provoked the national outrage and outpouring of political energy that resulted that summer in Congressional enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
The man Jackson identified, James Bonard Fowler, now 77, pleaded guilty last week to misdemeanor manslaughter for shooting Jackson in exchange for a prison sentence of six months. Members of Jackson’s family, including his daughter, were in the courtroom in the Perry County courthouse in Marion for the plea.
Fowler’s admission came on the day jury selection was to begin for his trial for Jackson’s murder. Fowler insisted that Jackson had tried to take his pistol and that he had acted in self-defense. But news accounts at the time of the incident reported that eyewitnesses Jackson had been trying to shield his mother from being beaten in the police riot when he was shot.
The plea agreement drew criticism from some, but Perry County prosecutor, Michael Jackson (no relation to Jimmie Lee Jackson) defended it by saying that “Time was starting to run out. We wanted to make sure justice was done before [Fowler] died.”
The justice was imperfect, of course. It was bound to be. Jimmie Lee Jackson was gunned down 45 years ago, at the very beginning of his adult life; James Bonard Fowler has lived – a free man — nearly a half-century longer. But one can say in a broader sense that Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death had long been redeemed — by the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which gave black Americans in Alabama and the rest of the South the power of the ballot.
That power has long showed its value in bringing about progressive, democratic change throughout the country. It showed itself again last week in the Marion courtroom.
Forty-five years after James Bonard Fowler played his state-sanctioned role in trying to deny black Alabamians their rights – including the right to serve on juries – he entered his guilty plea to the lesser charge. He did so rather than face murder charges being presented to a jury chosen from the citizenry of predominantly-black Perry County by that county’s elected district attorney, who is also African-American.
Lee A. Daniels is Director of Communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.