Alabama grand jury reviews civil rights-era killing
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A special grand jury convened yesterday in the Alabama town of Marion to review the fatal shooting of a black Vietnam War veteran by a state trooper during the height of civil rights tension in Alabama in 1965.
“There is no question about who did the shooting. The question is whether this was a murder or it was something else,” Perry County, Ala., District Attorney Michael Jackson said.
Former State Trooper James Bonard Fowler has insisted for years that he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense when Jackson grabbed his pistol during a melee in a Marion café.
“It’s not a murder or typical killing. Mr. Fowler was defending himself and his fellow state troopers,” said George Beck, Fowler’s attorney.
Jackson, the first black district attorney to serve an area of west Alabama that was the focus of civil rights demonstrations in the mid-1960s, said he reopened the Jimmie Lee Jackson killing at the request of constituents who felt the full story had never been told.
“From a historical point of view, people want to know what happened,” the district attorney said in an interview.
Michael Jackson, who is not related to Jimmie Lee Jackson, said he expects the special Perry County grand jury session — called to review that one case — to end with an indictment.
Jackson and Fowler’s attorney agree on one thing about the grand jury probe: Fowler hasn’t been asked to appear before the grand jury to give his version of events from Feb. 18, 1965.
On that winter night, about 500 people started marching from Zion United Methodist Church toward the Marion City Jail to protest the jailing of a civil rights worker. They were met by a line of city police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers.
The streetlights suddenly went out. Billy clubs started swinging and a group of protesters ran into Mack’s Café, pursued by state troopers. In the melee, 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor, as was his daughter, Viola Jackson, when she rushed to his side. Her son, recently returned Vietnam War veteran Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to help them and was shot.
He died on Feb. 26 at a Selma hospital. He was 26.
Fowler, 72, is now retired and living in the southeast Alabama town of Geneva. He declined comment about the grand jury, referring all questions to his attorney. But in a 2005 interview with The Associated Press, he said, “I didn’t intend to hurt that man. He snatched my weapon out of my holster and we were fighting for it. I was very sorry that it happened.”
Fowler’s version of the events was accepted by state officials in 1965. But in recent years, as prosecutors began to solve old civil rights era slayings — including the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963 and the slaying of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964 — people in west Alabama began to call for a new examination of Jackson’s death.
In 2005, state Attorney General Troy King launched a review with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, and then-Gov. Bob Riley offered a $5,000 reward for information.
King’s spokesman, Chris Bence, said investigators have interviewed people as far away as New York who were in Marion that night, and the inquiry is ongoing.
District Attorney Jackson, who pursued a separate investigation, said he has turned up enough information to go to a grand jury.
The inquiries have been hampered by two things. Some of the people who were there that night are now dead, as are two FBI agents who originally investigated Jackson’s death.
Also, witnesses who insisted state troopers were out of control have no photos to back up their case. News media covering the event were attacked and had their cameras destroyed or the lens painted black.
That was not the case a month later, when state troopers beat civil rights demonstrators at the start of a march from Selma to Montgomery to seek voting rights and protest Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death. The beatings, known as “Bloody Sunday,” were seen around the world. They became a galvanizing event in the civil rights movement and forced Alabama’s troopers to spend decades repairing their tarnished image.
The state troopers in Marion and those in Selma were under the direction of Al Lingo, who was handpicked by then-Gov. George C. Wallace.
Sworn statements given by various people present in Marion that fatal night are still available to investigators and can help recreate the scene since no pictures are available.
Normareen Shaw, who was running Mack’s Café, said in her statement, “Troopers ran inside and started beating people.” She said a trooper knocked out a light and the beating heightened. She said that as she ran back to the kitchen, she saw Cager Lee getting beat and Jackson’s sister trying to restrain him.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, is one of those who pushed for a new inquiry. He said the Jackson case demonstrates why there is no statute of limitations on homicides.
“People need to know that no matter how many decades or scores of years pass, they can still be brought to justice,” he said.
Fowler’s attorney said he’s hamstrung in presenting his side because officers who were with him that night in Mack’s Café have passed away.
“We feel like it’s a travesty to bring this at such a late date,” Beck said.
|Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and associates lead a procession behind the casket of Jimmie Lee Jackson during a funeral service in Marion, Ala., March 1, 1965. King officiated and then led a mass of mourners three miles in the rain to a cemetery for the burial of the 26-year-old Vietnam War veteran killed during racial violence. From left to right are: John Lewis, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Andrew Young. (AP photo)