When Jimmie Lee Jackson saw his frail 80-year-old grandfather rudely turned away from the registrar’s office in 1962 after attempting to register to vote in Marion, Ala., the young man became angry. He knew he had to join the civil rights movement.
On Feb. 18, 1965, he was among more than 200 people participating in a night march in Marion. Before they had walked a block, they were confronted by state troopers and the police chief, who ordered them to disperse.
The marchers halted at the chief’s order, and suddenly all the streetlights on the square went out. A black minister at the head of the march knelt to pray and was struck on the head by a trooper. Other troopers began swinging their clubs, and the marchers panicked, running for cover.
Jackson and his mother huddled for safety in a café. When Jackson’s grandfather entered the café bloodied and beaten, the young man tried to take him to a hospital. But they were quickly shoved back by a crowd of club-swinging troopers and terrified marchers.
The troopers began knocking out the café lights with their clubs and beating people. Jackson saw a trooper strike his mother, and he lunged for the man. He was clubbed across the face and slammed him into a cigarette machine. Another trooper pulled his pistol and shot Jackson in the stomach. It was two hours before Jackson arrived at the hospital in Selma. He died eight days later.
Forty-five years later, former trooper James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months in jail but was released early due to poor health. Fowler claimed he shot Jackson in self-defense.
At one of two services for Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of 2,000: “Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality. His death must prove that unmerited suffering does not go unredeemed.”
Jackson’s death inspired the first Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march a few weeks later, on March 7, a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” after troopers and local police attacked marchers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, turning them back. Later that year, after the completion of a third march, this time led by King, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, the crowning achievement of the movement.