Annie Lee Cooper fought for racial equality and played a huge role in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. But it wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey played her in the Academy Award-winning 2014 film, Selma, that many really paid attention to her activism. Today, Cooper is remembered for punching a racist sheriff in the face and is celebrated for playing a key role in helping Black Americans win the right to vote.
Born in Selma, Alabama, to a family of ten children in 1910, Cooper dropped out of school in seventh grade and moved to Kentucky to live with her sister. In 1962, she came back to Selma, Alabama, to take care of her ailing mother. Upon her return, she was shocked to find out that she would not be allowed to register to vote. In 1963, she teamed up with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to try and register to vote but she was fired from her job when her employers got to know about her activism.
Luckily, Cooper got another job as a clerk at a motel and officially joined the civil rights movement dedicated to activism for equal rights and treatment of African Americans in the U.S.
In January 1965, Cooper again tried to register to vote in Selma at the Dallas County Courthouse. And that was when she was stopped by the racist Sheriff Jim Clark, who was known for being violent. As the sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, he often arrested non-violent protesters and beat them while keeping Black people away from voting booths.
Cooper had on January 25, 1965, stood in line for hours outside the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote when Sheriff Clark ordered her to go home. “I was just standing there when his deputies told a man with us to move, and when he didn’t, they tried to kick him,” Cooper told the Montgomery Advertiser in 2010. “That’s when (Clark) and I got into it.”
According to historian David J. Garrow in his book, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Cooper said Clark poked her in the back of the neck with either a billy club or a cattle prod. 54-year-old Cooper then turned and delivered a right hook to Clark’s jaw. He dropped to the ground.
John Lewis, who later became a Congressman, said at the time, “Clark whacked her so hard we could hear the sound several rows back.”
Cooper was held down by deputies who arrested her and charged her with criminal provocation. She was detained in jail but was released after 11 hours because deputies feared that Clark would come back in and beat her.
While she was in jail, Martin Luther King Jr., who had arrived in Selma with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to stage a campaign for voting rights, made a historic speech in Brown Chapel.
“This is what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and they haven’t told the press the truth about it. Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t have turned around and hit Sheriff Clark just to be hitting.
“And of course, as you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark. At that moment, he was engaging in some very ugly business-as-usual action. This is what brought about that scene there.”
Indeed, Cooper’s actions, along with others, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I try to be nonviolent,” Cooper told Jet magazine a few weeks after the incident, “but I just can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing all over again if they treat me brutish like they did this time.”
Cooper died in November 2010 months after celebrating her 100th birthday. Apart from her life being portrayed by Winfrey, a street was named for her. Annie Cooper Avenue runs off Division Street in East Selma, where she had lived.
“Upfront, pleasant and…absolutely fearless” was how the late Representative Lewis described Cooper, whose legacy lives on.