Plea Closes 1965 Case of Slain Civil Rights Worker

With Monday’s guilty plea of former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler in the 1965 slaying of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson, another of the infamous cold cases that have languished unresolved since the turbulent peak of the civil rights movement was closed.

Fowler, 77, will spend six months in prison in exchange for pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree manslaughter, a misdemeanor. He was facing a murder charge.

Since his 2004 admission to a reporter that he pulled the trigger, Fowler has insisted that he shot Jackson in self-defense in a Marion, Ala., café during a civil rights protest that turned violent. Jackson succumbed to his wounds eight days later. His death is widely credited with prompting the March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” Selma-to-Montgomery march that was met with police violence on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The series of events inspired passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

As was common during the civil rights era, the original investigation of Jackson’s death was stymied by a racist justice system with little desire to convict one of its own. Fowler says that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) both contacted him after the Marion riot, but that he was never asked about Jackson. The Perry County district attorney also declined to question him at the time.

Normareen Shaw, a manager of the café in which Jackson was shot, witnessed the incident but was never asked to testify.

The perpetrators of several significant civil rights era crimes were finally brought to justice decades later. Klansman Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of murdering NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. De La Beckwith’s two 1964 trials ended with hung juries. Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 became the third person convicted (out of four suspects) in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Church in which four young black girls died. And in 2005, another Klansman, Edgar Ray Killen, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 kidnapping and slaughter of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (memorialized in the film “Mississippi Burning”).

Klansman James Ford Seale was convicted in 2007 on kidnapping-related charges in connection with the 1964 murders of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in 2008, citing a five-year statute of limitations on the charges. But the full 5th Circuit reversed that ruling in June 2009 and reinstated Seale’s conviction, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand in November 2009. Seale also lost a separate appeal before the 5th Circuit in March 2010, which his attorneys say will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the racism that permeated the South’s justice system at that time was so pervasive that some cases may never be resolved.

The 1955 slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, viciously beaten and murdered for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman, is widely credited with drawing the nation’s attention to the crisis of racism in the South. Yet more than half a century later, no one has been brought justice for Till’s murder. A 1955 jury acquitted two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who later admitted their guilt to Look magazine. Both are now dead. The DOJ reopened the case in 2004, and a state grand jury was convened to consider other possible suspects, but no one was indicted.

Authorities have repeatedly reopened the 1965 murder of Oneal Moore, the first black sheriff’s deputy in Washington Parish, La., yet the case still languishes unsolved. Moore was ambushed and killed on the way home from duty precisely one year after he was appointed deputy. Police arrested two suspects at the time, one of them a known white supremacist, but later released them and dropped charges. The case was reopened and closed again in 1990, 2001, and 2007, with no further arrests made.

All of the victims mentioned in this story – Jackson, Evers, Birmingham church-bombing victims Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, freedom riders Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, Till, Oneal Moore, Charles Moore and Dee – are among the 40 civil rights martyrs honored at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. The names of the 40, all of whom died between the momentous Brown v. Board decision in 1954 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, are inscribed on a black granite monument dedicated in 1989.

Though Fowler’s plea deal provides closure to the Jackson case, it is nevertheless vaguely unsatisfying. The state’s evidence against Fowler will never be presented to a jury, and a six-month sentence for what was once a murder charge seems, on the surface, generous even for a defendant of 77 years. But such is often the legacy of cases badly – or reluctantly – investigated during the violent climax of the nation’s era of legal racial segregation.

“History will remember Jimmie Lee Jackson, not by the anti-climatic result in the criminal case of his killer, but by the way thousands of people rallied after his death to march from Selma to Montgomery,” said Southern Poverty Law Center CEO Richard Cohen. “The result was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement.”