African-American residents of central Alabama are organizing to protest the six-month jail sentence that a white former state trooper has just begun for one of the seminal killings of the Civil Rights Movement.
A candlelight vigil open to people from across the country and other possible events are in the works, residents said this week.
The motivation for all this organizing is the fact that James Bonard Fowler, 77, began serving a half-year sentence on Dec. 1 in Geneva, Ala., for the Feb. 18, 1965, fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old African-American church deacon, father and Vietnam veteran.
Jackson was taking part in a peaceful civil rights protest in his hometown of Marion, Ala., when Fowler shot him in the stomach. Jackson died eight days later in the hospital, his death prompting the Selma to Montgomery marches, which ultimately led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In November, decades after Jackson’s death, Fowler was indicted and allowed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge of second-degree manslaughter.
WATCH VIDEO ON THE FOWLER CASE:
Jackson’ daughter, Cordelia Billingsley, said she is not happy with the outcome.
“Justice hasn’t been served,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Marion.
Others echoed her sentiment.
“We just don’t think that this sentence should go by without some public outcry,’ said Faya Rose Toure, a lawyer and activist based in Selma, Ala. “What it does is it sends a very bad message to people. It sends a message that the life of black men is not valued now.”
“I felt so strongly when I heard about Fowler,” said Evelyn Gibson Lowery, founder of SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. (Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now, Inc.), the sister organization to the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Lowery leads an annual tour through civil rights sites in the South that includes Jackson’s grave. Her organization also has erected a monument to Jackson in Alabama.
“I said, ‘What kind of justice is this? Going to jail for six months only,’ ” Lowery recalled.
“We got sucker punched,” said Lester Brown, 50, of Greene County, Ala., a local activist who is friends with Jimmie Lee Jackson’s family.
Residents have picked the Feb. 26 the anniversary of Jackson’s death to march to the jail in Geneva, Ala., where Fowler is being held, and hold a candlelight vigil, Brown said.
Plans are still being formed, but Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson are being contacted to take part in the gathering, said Toure, who is coordinator of the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” clashes in Selma, and also is founder of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, also in Selma. She also said she plans to seek more ideas for protest this weekend during the Southern Human Rights Organizers’ Conference, slated to take place today through Sunday in Birmingham, Ala.
“Right now, we’re extremely concerned because Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was so impactful,” Toure said. “It led to ‘Bloody Sunday,’ which led to the Voting Rights Act that ultimately led to the election of the first African-American president this century.”
On that night in February 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson had joined 400 others to protest the jailing of a local activist. The night turned violent, as authorities used nightsticks and cattle prods on the crowd. Lee’s grandfather, Cager Lee, 82, was beaten and hospitalized with open scalp wounds and bruises.
Jackson and his mother retreated to the inside of a café with other protesters. Troopers followed and two of them began beating Jackson’s mother. When Jackson moved to block the troopers, he was shot in the stomach. Jackson ran out of the café and made it a half block when the troopers caught up with him and beat him. Eight days later, he died at a hospital in Selma.
At his funeral, Martin Luther King talked of visiting him. “I never will forget as I stood by his bedside a few days ago…how radiantly he still responded, how he mentioned the freedom movement and how he talked about the faith that he still had in his God,” King would say during the eulogy at a packed Zion United Methodist Church in Marion. “Like every self-respecting negro, Jimmie Jackson wanted to be free.”Willie Nell Avery, who knew Jimmie Lee Jackson and took part in the protests the night of the shooting, says she and other African-Americans in and around Marion were surprised when Fowler’s plea deal was announced in the local media. She said no one had been aware any negotiation was taking place.
“It was just so secretive — why, I do not know,” Avery said. “I think that was the most disturbing piece of justice I have ever seen.”
Repeated efforts to reach Jackson’s daughter for further comment, or his sister for reaction were unsuccessful. But community members said the case has bothered them. They point out that when Jackson issued an apology in the courtroom for his crime, he looked at the judge, not Jackson’s sister or daughter. They also are angry that authorities listened to Fowler’s expressions of fear for his safety if jailed in Perry County, and allowed him to serve his time in the jail in his home county of Geneva. Perry County is 67.5 percent African-American while Geneva County is 87.6 percent white, according to Census Bureau data.
Toure said she and others appreciate that Michael Jackson, the district attorney, pushed to resolve the case after 45 years. But Lester Brown questioned how an African-American district attorney could allow such a reduced charge.
“Somewhere, he missed his history class,” Brown said of Jackson. “People gave their lives.”
Jackson, speaking by telephone from his office in Selma, said that he pushed for the plea agreement because he felt that, otherwise, with a judge that appeared to be delaying the case in every way he could, the aging former state trooper would be dead before Jackson was able to make him pay any sort of retribution.
“For the history books, it’s always going to be that he pled guilty and acknowledged what he did,” Jackson said.
Jackson was elected to his first six-year term in 2005, becoming the first African-American district attorney in Perry County and the second ever in Alabama. In 2007, he began seeking to prosecute Fowler. Circuit Judge Thomas Jones made public comments that such efforts were politically motivated and he said Fowler wouldn’t get a fair trial in Perry County, Jackson said. The district attorney said he sought unsuccessfully to have the judge removed from the case.
Right before the case was first slated to go to trial, in 2008, the judge ruled Jackson had to turn over all his contact and background information on his witnesses to the defense, Jackson said. The judge also ordered Jackson to tell the defense what he planned to say in court.
“I appealed the case and it ended up going to the Alabama Supreme Court and I won that issue,” Jackson said.
But this caused delays. And even after the ruling in Jackson’s favor, the judge did not immediately put the Fowler case on the docket. Jackson believes this is because his own term was ending and he was running for reelection in November. He believes the judge was waiting to see if he would win. “If I had lost, the case would have disappeared,” Jackson said.
Efforts to locate home contact information for Jones were not successful.
Jackson said he believes any criticism of him or of the Fowler situation is politically motivated and has been generated by his political foes around the area.
“Ninety-eight percent of the folks are very satisfied with this plea,” Jackson said. “You know what would have happened – if the guy had died before resolution, they’d be bitching about that.”
George Beck, Fowler’s Montgomery-based attorney, said that despite the protests emerging in the African-American community, he felt the outcome was fair.
“We feel that had we gotten to a fair and impartial jury that Mr. Fowler would probably have been acquitted based on self defense,” Beck said. “So I think it was a fair settlement for everybody.”
But the community does not agree. Along with the Feb. 26 gathering, they also hope to place some focus on the case during the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, scheduled for March 3 through March 7, Toure said, adding that if people want to take part in any of the events, they can contact her at her law office at 334-875-9264.
“We’ve got to do something,” she said.