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“First Martyr of the Voting Rights Movement”: How the Death of a Black Man in 1965 Changed American History

It was 1965. A year soon scarred by social and political upheaval: The assassination of Malcolm X. Bloody Sunday. The Vietnam War. The Watts Riots.

Jimmie Lee Jackson would see none of it.

The 26-year-old showed up the night of Feb. 18 in Marion, Alabama, where hundreds of people had gathered to march in protest of the arrest of a local civil rights activist. When police and state troopers intervened to break up the march, the scene outside Zion United Methodist Church turned violent.

This series explores the unseen, unheard, lost and forgotten stories of America’s people of color.

Fists. Feet. Nightsticks. Bottles. Cattle prods. And a single shot from an Alabama state trooper’s revolver that ripped through Jackson’s stomach as he tried to shield his mother from the attacks.

His death eight days later altered the course of American history. It united activists in Marion and Selma, making their combined campaigns for desegregation and voting rights powerful enough to resonate around the world.

Yet Jackson’s name is little more than a footnote in time.

“It was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson that provoked the march from Selma to Montgomery,” said John Lewis, a civil rights icon and U.S. congressman, in 2007. “It was his death and his blood that gave us the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson is the forgotten catalyst of the voting right movement(5:03)
Before the Selma to Montgomery march, there was a night march in Marion where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965.

As the nation nears one year since the death of George Floyd, who inspired another national outcry for racial equality, USA TODAY looks at Jackson’s story to understand why he is a forgotten martyr of the civil rights movement.

USA TODAY inspected hundreds of unredacted FBI files that few have seen, along with court records and newspaper accounts from the 1960s that illustrate the racial tension in central Alabama in the weeks leading up to Jackson’s death.

We also interviewed dozens of historians, eyewitnesses, local citizens and relatives of Jackson to reconstruct what happened the night Jackson was fatally shot and to shed light on who he was as a person, why his legacy is overshadowed and how his death in 1965 is connected to the racial reckoning America experienced last year.

Fifty-five years after Jackson’s death, in a city more than a thousand miles north, another Black man lay motionless on the pavement. This time, his life was draining under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The death of 46-year-old Floyd ignited a movement of its own.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide poured into the streets to protest racial inequality, police violence and the systems that perpetuate racism decades after the civil rights movement.

Floyd’s name echoed through every major American city and indeed, around the world, along with the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Every movement has a catalyst, the person, place or situation that moves people to action. In 2020, it was Floyd. In 1965, it was Jackson.

But with Jackson, almost no one says his name.

An ordinary man in the segregated South

BEFORE A BULLET ripped through Jackson’s body, he was just an ordinary man. He once chopped wood for a living, earning $6 a day. He was a deacon at a local Baptist church and worked at the county hospital.  And like many other Black folks living in the rural Deep South, he was frustrated with segregation and being denied the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee and his little sister, Emma Jean Jackson, grew up in a shotgun shack on the edge of a stream.

After Jimmie Lee’s father died in a car accident, his grandfather, Cager Lee, became his father figure. And as Lee aged, he relied on Jimmie Lee, whom he called “Bunky,” for transportation.

“My grandfather depended on him so much,” said Evelyn Rogers, one of Jimmie Lee’s cousins.

“Bunky, take me to town. Bunky, I need to go to the store. Bunky, I need to go to this person’s house.”

After Jimmie Lee’s death, few details about him emerged. In this era, the media didn’t explore the personal lives of regular Black men who were killed by police. Therefore, the story of Jimmie Lee’s life has been largely lost to time as the family members closest to him have died. His sister and closest living relative, Emma, declined to be interviewed for this story.

But USA TODAY interviewed several other relatives to get a glimpse into who Jimmie Lee was.

Rogers recalled Jimmie Lee as a modest man who cared most about taking care of his family. “He was a very simple guy,” she said.

Cousin Anne Robinson, now 75, remembers his beautiful smile and how Jimmie Lee let her and Emma borrow his 1963 green and white Chevy so they could learn how to drive.

“He just always liked to help people,” she said

A day filled with tension

JIMMIE LEE JACKSON was shot on a February day filled with all the classic ingredients for mayhem in the Deep South: segregation and mounting racial tensions, Black folks daring to push back against inequality, police officers steadfast on enforcing the status quo and civil rights leaders hoping to bring national attention to bear on Alabama.

In January 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived in nearby Selma to electrify the voting rights campaign. Central Alabama was one of the worst places in America when it came to suppressing Black votes.

Poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation tactics enforced by police all but ensured that only white people voted. Government records show that in 1960, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were registered to vote even though they comprised more than half the county population. Black voters accounted for just 2% in Perry County, where Marion is located, despite representing nearly two-thirds of the county population.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and local groups, including the Perry County Civic Justice League, had been focused on voter registration campaigns for months. But the arrival of King and other national civil rights figures both energized local protests and agitated law enforcement.

Black residents were chafing against an Alabama political system that didn’t want to yield to racial integration. They marched. They sat in the “whites only” areas at movie theaters and restaurants. They boycotted businesses. The tension was mounting.

In early February, two weeks before Jackson was shot, hundreds of students walked out of a Marion high school to protest segregation, starting a three-week boycott of school.

Police were hauling Black youths off to state prison camps by the busload.

The newspaper in Alabama’s state capital noted the unprecedented number of arrests made in Selma and Marion.

“800 More Arrested As Tension Builds,” a Montgomery Advertiser front-page headline on Feb. 4, 1965, read.

The jails were overflowing with Black people, said Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights leader who worked in Selma at the time. “We wouldn’t let up. We kept marching, kept the pressure on. We were breaking the system of local government.”

On the morning of Feb. 18, 1965, FBI agents were on the ground, monitoring the civil rights protest activity in Marion. Seldom-seen notes agents made on their reports and dozens of eyewitness testimonies help re-create the day’s events.

“Negroes came out of church with a half-dozen picket signs,” an FBI agent wrote at 10:56 a.m. “125 Negroes crossed the street, going north by the courthouse. They stopped and walked back, and were stopped … by the Chief of Police.”

That morning, police arrested James Orange, an activist key to SCLC’s voter registration efforts in central Alabama, for encouraging students to join a march.

Activists learned that a group of Ku Klux Klansmen planned to lynch Orange while he was in police custody, Lafayette said. So organizers planned a nighttime march from the church to the jail for his protection.

However, Marion Police Chief T.O. Harris learned more civil rights leaders were coming from Selma, and “they planned to put on a show that night.” So he and Perry County Sheriff William Loftis sought help from Alabama state troopers.

As the sun fell, the mood began to shift. Hundreds of Black people poured into Zion United church shortly before 7 p.m. They raised their voices in song; the melody wafting out of the red brick and wooden steepled church caught the ear of FBI agent Archibald Riley as he peered through a second-story window in a building across the street.

“Singing was louder than other nights,” Riley noted.

Inside the church, a packed sanctuary listened to a fiery address from the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader and King’s right-hand man. The congregation then prepared to march one block north to the jail to protest Orange’s arrest.

Before the congregation exited the building, scores of police officers surrounded the church outside. One Alabama state trooper estimated there were 100 fellow officers on the scene. Assuming the protest would “get out of hand,” the chief of police and sheriff already planned to stop the march before it got too far from the church, according to Chief Harris.

At about 9:25 p.m., the church’s double doors opened wide, and the marchers emerged walking side by side in pairs.

They headed north toward the jail, walking past the bus station, where they were confronted by a police blockade. The police chief addressed the marchers over a bull horn.

“Chief Harris advised the Negroes that they were in an unlawful assembly and for them to disperse and go home or back to the church,” a FBI agent noted.

Face to face with police officers and directed to disperse, the Rev. James Dobynes, one of the protest leaders, knelt to pray. As he prayed, the first blow was delivered: Dobynes was struck with a nightstick. More police officers and troopers followed suit, striking protesters with billy clubs. The chaos had begun.

Robinson, Jackson’s cousin, tensed up as she recalled a memory she’s long tried to bury. Robinson was 18 the night of the melee, but she remembers vividly the harrowing moment when officers began flailing their nightsticks.

“N——! What are you doing n——! It’s illegal. You’re not supposed to be here,” Robinson recalled officers yelling.

“And then next thing you know, after that you hear bam, bam, bam, bam,” she said, imitating the officers swinging their clubs.

“People were screaming, hollering, jumping over fences, jumping in ditches trying to get away.” It was dark, Robinson said. And unlike every other night, “the streetlights were not on.”

Police tried to force marchers back inside the church, but some fled into Mack’s Cafe, a hangout next door. Amid the fray outside, Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather was attacked.

Lee was standing behind the church when a “man with clubs” came around and said, “n—- go home,” he told the New York Times days after the assault.

“They hauled me off and hit me and knocked me to the street and kicked me,” Lee told the newspaper. “It was hard to take for an old man whose bones are dry like cane.”

Lee then sought refuge inside Mack’s Cafe.

What happened next varies depending on who you ask and whose written account you believe. What’s certain is that dozens of marchers were bludgeoned and hospitalized that night, including Jackson’s grandfather and mother. Jackson was the only person killed.

Jackson had just finished his shift at the county hospital and was headed to the church to pick up his mother and grandfather, Rogers said.

Jackson told the FBI days after he was shot, while still in the hospital, that he initially went into Mack’s Cafe to help get his grandfather to the hospital. As they were leaving the cafe, he said, two troopers forced them back inside and struck Jackson on the side, his arms and his head with their clubs.

Emma Jackson told the FBI she saw her brother enter the cafe to help their grandfather and she saw the troopers force them back inside. She said Jimmie Lee Jackson then stood near the counter and cigarette machine. He was visibly upset, so his sister “kept talking to (him) to calm him down.”

“But he did not appear as if he were going to cause trouble,” she told the FBI.

Jackson told the FBI he was drinking from a bottle when he saw a trooper hitting his mother. He went to assist his mother, but his sister held him back. Jackson recalled standing near the doorway when he was shot in the stomach by a trooper. He then ran out of the cafe. Several troopers followed and beat him with their nightsticks before he collapsed a few yards away.

Most eyewitnesses corroborated Jackson’s version of events, agreeing that he and his grandfather were pushed back into the cafe while trying to leave. Once inside, police began beating Black folks with their billy clubs. A scuffle ensued between Jackson’s mother and the police. One eyewitness said they saw Jackson’s mother, who was later hospitalized with a head injury, clubbed on the head. Shortly thereafter, several eyewitnesses said they heard a gunshot.

But police had a different version of events.

In a written statement provided to the FBI, state trooper B.J. Hoots said police entered Mack’s Cafe because a group of African American people were throwing bricks and bottles at them. Fellow trooper James Bonard Fowler shot Jackson only after Jackson grabbed Fowler’s gun inside the holster, “apparently trying to get it out.”

Fowler said Jackson hit him twice over the head with a bottle while trying to pry his firearm out of the holster. Fowler staggered backward as the two tussled, pulling his gun free from the holster, and the gun fired when Jackson struck his hand with the bottle, he said.

No civilian witnesses reported seeing Jackson struggling to take Fowler’s firearm away.

Jackson was admitted to the Black hospital in Selma hours after being shot. He died eight days later.

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