6 Month Sentence in Civil Rights-Era Murder Causes Uproar

Melanie Eversley, The Grio, Dec. 12, 2010

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.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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