Some civil rights activists gathered at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama, on the evening of February 18, 1965. Their mission: to march in support of James Orange, the field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who had been arrested not too long ago.
At the start of the demonstration, Alabama State Troopers appeared on the scene, ordering the demonstrators to disperse. They soon started attacking the demonstrators with clubs. Some were even tear-gassed by officers wearing gas masks and helmets. Some of the demonstrators fled into Mack’s Cafe, a hangout nearby. Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola Jackson, and his grandfather, Cager Lee, were among those who fled into the cafe. They and other protesters were hoping to seek shelter there, instead, they ended up being physically assaulted by the police who followed them into the cafe.
Jackson tried to save his mother and 82-year-old grandfather from the attacks. In the process, he was shot twice in the abdomen by trooper James Fowler. Jackson was able to escape from the cafe despite his wounds. He then collapsed and died eight days later at a local hospital. His death is believed to be one of the catalysts for the March 7, 1965, march from Selma to Montgomery, also known as the “Bloody Sunday.” However, only a few know about him or his story.
“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.”
At the time of Jackson’s murder, Black votes were being suppressed in many areas in the Deep South, particularly central Alabama. Records cited by USA Today show that in 1960, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County, where Selma is, were registered to vote even though African Americans were more than half the county population. In Perry County, where Marion is located, Black voters comprised about 2% even though they made up almost two-thirds of the county population.
Black people protested this, in the form of voter registration campaigns. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was at the forefront of these campaigns. Things intensified when Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent civil rights leaders arrived to join in the campaigns. King arrived in nearby Selma a month before Jackson was killed in Marion.
Jackson used to chop wood to survive but he was also a deacon at a local Baptist church and a worker at the county hospital. Growing up in a shotgun shack on the edge of a stream, his father died in a car accident, and his grandfather became his father figure, according to USA Today. Jackson, like his fellow Blacks, had qualms about being denied the right to vote.
On the night before he was killed, James Orange of the SCLC, who had been leading voter registration efforts in central Alabama, had been arrested for urging students to join a march. While he was in police custody, activists learned that some Ku Klux Klansmen were planning to lynch him, so they decided to march from the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion to the jail for his protection on that evening of February 18.
Jackson had just finished his shift at the county hospital and was on the way to pick up his mother and grandfather from the church when the chaos ensued. Days after he was shot, Jackson told the FBI that he and his family had tried to leave Mack’s Cafe amid the attacks but they were forced back inside by the police who started beating them with their clubs. Jackson was admitted to the Black hospital in Selma after he was shot. He died eight days later.
“He was the first martyr of the voting rights movement,” Albert Turner Jr., a Perry County commissioner, told USA Today. “Anytime (Black people) go to the polls and have a right to exercise their vote, it’s because of what happened in this little town of Marion.”
Two funerals were held for Jackson — one in Selma, and one in Marion, and both were attended by thousands. He is buried with the rest of his family on the outskirts of Marion. King eulogized Jackson, saying: “I never will forget as I stood by his bedside a few days ago…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. Like every self-respecting Negro, Jimmie Jackson wanted to be free…We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
Days after Jackson’s death, some people wanted to march from Marion to the state capital, Montgomery, and lay his body on the capitol steps for officials to see. But civil rights leaders chose to march, without Jackson’s body, from Selma to Montgomery. That march became a landmark in the American civil rights movement and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states following the Civil War.
Today, Black people vote freely because of Jackson. “There is no me, no (Barack) Obama or Vice President (Kamala) Harris without Jimmie,” Michael Jackson told USA Today.
In 2004, Fowler admitted to the shooting of Jackson but he did not face any criminal charges until 2007. He said he acted in self-defense and was sentenced to six months in state prison.