Jimmie Lee Jackson was a 26-year-old Army veteran, civil rights activist, and deacon at his Marion, Alabama, church. In February, 1965, Jackson took part in a peaceful nighttime demonstration to protest for his right to vote. As the congregation left the church to march to the local jail just a half block away, a wall of local policer officers and state troopers was waiting for them. As soon as they arrived, someone turned off the streetlights.
In the aftermath of the melee that followed, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in the stomach by a state trooper. He died eight days later. His death was the catalyst for Martin Luther King to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, and set in motion a chain of events, one that includes the infamous “Bloody Sunday” incident on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, that would change American culture forever.
By 1964, Jackson had become an ordained deacon of the St. James Baptist Church of Marion. At this point in his life, he had already joined the Army and saw service in Vietnam. After a short stint in Indiana, he returned to his hometown of Marion where he watched as his 80-year-old grandfather was turned away while trying to register to vote. He eventually joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help fight for his civil rights.
Three years later, he died in that fight.
On the night of Feb. 18, 1965, there were 500 or so people filing out of Marion’s Zion United Methodist Church to make their way to the local jail where a civil rights activist was being held by local police. The SCLC was a nonviolent group, and the demonstrators planned to sing freedom songs as they marched to the jailhouse. They never made it that far. The wall of police officers — state, county, and local — began to tear into the crowd as soon as the lights went out.
They weren’t alone. Angry onlookers joined the crowd, attacking anyone in their path, including other onlookers, journalists, and even patrons of a nearby cafe. It was Mack’s Café just off the city square where state troopers started tearing the place apart, hitting customers and marchers. Lee’s grandfather, Cager, was clubbed, as was his mother, Viola. When Jimmie tried to help his mother to her feet, he was shot in the stomach by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler.
Lee languished in the hospital for eight days, eventually succumbing to his wound. Fowler was not initially charged with any crime, nor was he questioned about Lee. What happened next changed the country forever.
The SCLC decided they would march from Selma, Ala. to the capital at Montgomery to protest the death of Lee and the inequality of life in Alabama, to display their desire to vote, and to demonstrate the need for a Voting Rights Act to pass in Congress. In three attempts over 18 days, protestors attempted to march the 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery. The first attempt became infamous after it was attacked by police after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
One of the organizers became famous for a photo of her beaten body lying wounded on the bridge.
The second and third marches were joined by other activist groups and sympathizers from all over the United States who were horrified by the violence inflicted by the state troopers. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King, the second group of marchers turned around before fully crossing the bridge, so as not to violate a court order. The 2,500 people assembled said a prayer before turning back.
The third time, the procession was led by Dr. King with the First Amendment blessing of a federal judge. President Lyndon Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and ordered the soldiers to protect the marchers. They did and the procession made it all the way to the a camp site outside of Montgomery, adding more and more marchers along the way.
By the time they reached the state capitol building, the march was 25,000 strong. By August, 1965, President Johnson was signing the Voting Rights Act into law. Fowler, the trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, was finally convicted of manslaughter for the shooting in 2011.