On this date in 1965, a funeral was held in Alabama that helped bring the civil rights movement into focus. The man being buried was Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old U.S. Army veteran -- a husband and father and the youngest deacon in his church. Jackson was shot by a state trooper while shielding his family from police batons. The eulogy memorializing him, a call to action, was delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Although I’ve written about this tragic case before, it seems timely again.
The impetus for the now-iconic 1965 march on Alabama’s state capitol had been building for months, but the momentum reached a crescendo at the March 3 funeral of civil rights marcher Jimmie Lee Jackson. He had been shot on Feb. 18 by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother from police batons after his family, including his 82-year-old grandfather, were among a group of black protesters chased into Mack’s Cafe in the central Alabama city of Marion.
The trooper believed to have fired the fatal shot -- in the café melee it wasn’t clear -- was James Bonard Fowler, a divorced 31-year-old former Korean War veteran who’d served in the U.S. Navy. Fowler claimed self-defense and was not charged with any crime. It was eight days before Jackson died of his wounds. The Rev. King visited the young man at Selma's Good Samaritan Hospital, and spoke at his funeral.
“I never will forget as I stood by his bedside a few days ago,” King said, “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 also sought to focus anger away from Fowler and onto the larger, cosmic social issues at stake. “Jimmie Jackson wanted to be free,” King said. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
Four decades later, however, Michael Wayne Jackson, the second black prosecutor in Alabama’s history, concluded that an integral pillar of a system that produced the killing was failing to hold police officers accountable for their actions. Reviving cold cases from the civil rights era, Jackson (no relation to Jimmie Jackson) persuaded a grand jury to indict the former state trooper.
Violence had been a constant in Fowler’s life since the shooting. A year after Jimmie Jackson’s death, he had fatally shot another black man in custody. In 1968, he was fired from the state police force after physically assaulting his sergeant over a bad job evaluation. With the war in Southeast Asia ramping up, Fowler enlisted in the military again, this time in the U.S. Army. Revenge seems to have been part of his motivation -- his brother Robert, a much-decorated staff sergeant, had been killed in Vietnam -- and James got himself assigned to his brother’s rifle platoon. James Fowler won medals, too, including two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart.
But maybe it was redemption Fowler was seeking, more than revenge. That rifle platoon was racially integrated, and his commanding officer later told the Anniston Star that Fowler was respected and liked by everyone in the unit.
“That man was not a racist,” retired Lt. Col. Robert Parrish told the newspaper. “We had racial problems in the Army then, but not in that unit. They loved and looked up to him. I know this man very well, and I knew him in combat. He’s one of those rare people who I would call a real war hero.”
But we must pay for our sins, in this world or the next, and four decades later, prosecutor Michael W. Jackson procured a guilty plea to manslaughter in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. James Bonard Fowler, by then in his 70s, living with his Thai wife on an Alabama farm and fighting pancreatic cancer, offered an apology of sorts -- while still insisting he acted in self-defense -- and was given a six-month jail term. Many people thought it was too little, too late. But it was not nothing.
John Fleming, the Anniston Star reporter to whom Fowler finally confessed firing the fatal shot back in 1965, put it this way: “One thing we’ve never experienced in the South is anything close to a truth and reconciliation commission,” he said. “What happened today was a moment of that experience.”