On February 18, 1965, around 500 people gathered at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, AL to protest the arrest of a young civil rights worker. The group planned to march to the jail where the civil rights worker was being held and stage a peaceful demonstration. No one in the group was armed.
While the protestors convened in the church, Col. Al Lingo, commander of the Alabama State Troopers, deployed 50 troopers in the surrounding streets. As people exited the church to begin their march, they were confronted by state troopers, city police officers, and other white civilians.
Sheriff T.O. Harris ordered the protestors to disperse over a loudspeaker. James Dobynes, a church minister, called out, “May we pray before we go back?” Suddenly, the streetlights went out, and the troopers, officers, and white civilians began attacking the demonstrators.
About ten troopers chased a group of protesters into Mack’s Café, where a dozen or more people sought refuge. The troopers clubbed 82-year-old Cager Lee, Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather, to the floor. Viola Jackson, Jimmy Lee Jackson’s mother, rushed to her father’s aid, and a trooper knocked her down. As Jimmy Lee Jackson tried to shield his mother from further harm, James Bonard Fowler, an Alabama State Trooper, drew his revolver and shot Jimmy Lee Jackson twice in the abdomen.
Jimmy Lee Jackson died in the hospital on February 26, 1965, eight days after the shooting. He was 26-years old. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at his funeral:
A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone.
He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law.
He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam and cannot protect the rights of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.
He was murdered by the indifference of every white minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of his stained-glass windows.
And he was murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who passively accepts the evils of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.
Shortly after Jackson’s death, civil rights leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, to protest the Jackson killing.
At the time of the shooting, a grand jury refused to indict James Bonard Fowler. Michael Jackson, Perry County’s first black district attorney, reopened the investigation after his election in 2005.
On May 9, 2007, a grand jury indicted Fowler on first-degree and second-degree murder charges for the fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. In a plea deal reached with the prosecution, Fowler pled guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison on November 15, 2010. At his sentencing, Fowler apologized for the shooting, but maintained that he’d acted in self-defense, believing that Jimmy Lee Jackson was trying to grab his gun.
After serving his six-month sentence in the Geneva County Jail, Fowler was released on July 7, 2011.