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45 Years Later, Former Alabama State Trooper Pleads Guilty to Killing Black Civil Rights Worker Jimmie Lee Jackson

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A white former Alabama state trooper has pleaded guilty to killing a black civil rights worker 45 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement. Seventy-seven-year-old James Bonard Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison for the 1965 shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson during a melee in a restaurant in Marion, Alabama. We speak to John Fleming, the reporter to whom Fowler first confessed, and Democratic Congress member John Lewis of Georgia, a leading figure of the civil rights movement. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A white former Alabama state trooper has pleaded guilty to killing a black civil rights worker 45 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement. Seventy-seven-year-old James Bonard Fowler pled guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter two weeks before he was set to go to trial. He had been charged with two counts of murder in the 1965 shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson during a melee in a restaurant in Marion, Alabama. Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of unsupervised probation.

Jackson’s killing was a cornerstone in the civil rights movement. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at his funeral. His death set off the first Selma-to-Montgomery march that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama police attacked demonstrators crossing a bridge, an event many say helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Monday’s plea agreement brought an end to a case that’s been 45 years in the making. In the 1960s, two grand juries investigated Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killing but chose to not pursue charges. Then in 2004, Fowler admitted to a reporter for the Anniston Star that he pulled the trigger that killed Jackson. He claimed he shot the unarmed Jackson in self-defense. It was the first time Jackson’s shooter was publicly identified. The revelation helped lead prosecutors to bring charges against Fowler.

John Fleming is the reporter to whom Jackson confessed. He is an editor-at-large at the Anniston Star and is a founder of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. He’s joining us now from Atlanta, Georgia.

And we’ll also be joined by Congress member John Lewis, leading figure of the civil rights movement. He was at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral with Dr. Martin Luther King and helped lead the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march and was badly beaten by police.

First, though, to John Fleming. John, talk about what happened in the — that led to Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death.

JOHN FLEMING: Well, it was a rare nighttime protest march in a place called Marion, Alabama, which is west of Selma, a place out kind of in the wilderness of Alabama’s Black Belt. It was in late February of 1965. The protest got underway. It was a peaceful march around the town square, but Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement arrived and waded into the crowd and broke out billy clubs, and violence quickly broke out. During all this, a group of protesters slipped into a place called Mack’s Café, a restaurant off the town square, and they were followed into that café by a group of state troopers. Mr. Fowler was one of these. And when they went inside, as you said, a melee broke out, and a number of people were hit, and objects were thrown around. And during this altercation, Mr. Jackson was shot by Trooper Fowler.

Now, immediately after that, the trooper and some of his colleagues, they wrote affidavits and presented those, but those were never brought into the public domain. Those affidavits were kept in the Department of Public Safety in Alabama and never really saw the light of day. After all this happened, press reports and histories of the time just refer to a state trooper shooting Mr. Jackson; they don’t — they never refer to Mr. Fowler by name.

AMY GOODMAN: And Fowler, in his affidavit, said he shot him, but it was never presented in court?

JOHN FLEMING: Well, his affidavit stated then that he shot in self-defense. And there were two grand juries, which were convened soon after that. One was federal grand jury; one was a state grand jury. But both of them immediately no-billed the case. Neither one were brought forward. But again, his affidavit said that he fired in self-defense.

AMY GOODMAN: And the scene, Taylor Branch writing, “The café owner saw troopers attack Cager Lee again in the kitchen. For trying to pull them off, Viola Jackson was beaten to the floor. Her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, lunged to protect her. One trooper threw him against a cigarette machine, another shot him twice in the stomach, and then they cudgeled him back outside toward the bus station, where he collapsed.”

JOHN FLEMING: That is true. That is how history has put it down. This is not what Trooper Fowler has always maintained, but history says it the other way. And, of course, the mystery for everyone is that — for so long, was what the identity of the trooper was and what his side of the story was. I managed to find him in 2004, and we had this long conversation, this long interview, where in the middle of it he told me that he did indeed shoot Jimmie Lee Jackson, but again, it was in self-defense. So I just wrote the story in 2004. And soon after that, a number of things began to happen, which eventually led to his indictment in 2007 from a Perry County grand jury, which culminated in the plea agreement that we saw on Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’re going to be speaking with Congress member John Lewis. But tell us who Jimmie Lee Jackson was, his significance, John Fleming.

JOHN FLEMING: Well, it was significant in — his death was significant in that it brought about a determination within the local leadership of the civil rights movement on the ground around Selma at the time to do something. There was this feeling of infuriation by the leadership that law enforcement had been involved in this. And the thought was that the body of Jimmie Lee Jackson would be taken to Montgomery and put on the doorstep of the governor, and to demand that something be done about that. Of course, that wasn’t done; he was buried there in Marion. But this idea became to gel about the Selma-to-Montgomery march, about doing something momentous. So the movement started going in that direction.

And the event that Congressman Lewis, of course, was very much involved in was the first Selma-to-Montgomery march in early March of 1965, which was met by Alabama state troopers on horseback and teargas. And those are the images that were broadcast on national television, which really brought into focus the horrors that were going on in Alabama at the time. And that gave an opportunity to change some minds in the U.S. Senate, and eventually we moved towards passage of the Voting Rights Act. That’s the historical significance.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jimmie Lee Jackson personally —

JOHN FLEMING: Now, the historical — the significance of this guilty plea that we saw on Monday, as Doug Jones, a former U.S. prosecutor, pointed out to me, that we — that there is a guilty plea in the case. And it’s something concrete that both the community around Marion and the people in that part of the Black Belt can have and that the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson can have, which will allow us perhaps to move forward a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jimmie Lee Jackson himself, at 26, he was the youngest deacon in his Baptist church. He was a veteran. He was a soldier.

JOHN FLEMING: Well, yes, these things are so. He was a fine man. I mean, you talk to anybody in Marion about him, and he was — he was these things. But you get the sense also that he, as an individual, represented something of the future of the black community around Marion, that, you know, one of the potential leaders and pillars of the community had been taken away from them. They, as a community, have been grieving for a really long time over this, the family and the community. And my conversations with his sister, especially, she feels like this has been a good thing, that this journey has — I won’t say it’s come to an end, but it’s certainly helped them move on.

AMY GOODMAN: John Fleming, I want to bring —

JOHN FLEMING: Amy, I just —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. One last point.

JOHN FLEMING: I’d like to point out quickly to you that, you know, in the Deep South, we have a lot of these kind of cases. The Jimmie Lee Jackson case was almost lost to history. And it is good that it was brought forward, but we have perhaps dozens of these kinds of cases in the Deep South. And my paper, the Anniston Star, has been very aggressive in trying to deal with some of this, but my collaborative, as well, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, is an effort at a new kind of investigative journalism, which we think can get to the bottom of more of these cases. And this plea that we had Monday, we also hope, can provide a little bit of momentum towards looking at some of these other cases. The FBI has at least 60 that they are still holding open.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Fleming, we also have Congress member John Lewis, also from the Atlanta area, but speaking to us from the Congress right now. Congress member John Lewis is the senior Democratic chief deputy whip. He chairs the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight.

Well, we’re going back in time, Congressman Lewis, but just two days ago, James Bonard Fowler pled guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter two weeks before he was to go on trial on two counts of murder in the ’65 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. You knew Jimmie Lee Jackson. You were at his funeral with Dr. Martin Luther King. Tell us about the significance of this plea this week.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: This is a significant breakthrough. So many of these cases, cold cases, have been lingering for some time unsolved. And I was delighted and pleased to see the defendant come forward. I remember that period so well. I was very much involved in Marion, Perry County, and Selma, Alabama during those days. And when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and later died at a local hospital in Selma, Alabama, it was a very sad and dark hour for the civil rights movement. And we made a decision to march from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize the fight that this young man had been shot and later died, because he was part of an effort to gain the right to vote for all of the citizens of Alabama.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Lewis, describe the funeral for Jimmie Lee Jackson.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson was very sad. In this little community in the heart of the Black Belt of Alabama, Marion is the home of Coretta Scott King, the home of the late Mrs. Andrew Young. It was like the capital of the Black Belt. So, hundreds and thousands of black people from all over the Black Belt, but from all over Alabama and the South, came to the funeral. And that day was a gloomy day. It rained. And we walked from the church, after Dr. King had delivered the eulogy, to the cemetery, carrying his body to be buried. We knew then that his death and his funeral would become the linchpin, the spark, to continue the fight for the right to vote. So, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral was very sad, and his death. But he didn’t die in vain.

As it was said before, this young man was a veteran, a young leader in the movement there, participating in a nonviolent protest. And in America, whether it’s in Selma, Alabama or in Marion, Alabama or in Washington, D.C., we have a right to protest in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion. And in my estimation, he was executed by this state trooper.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel satisfied with the sentence of six months and six months’ probation?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, I’m not satisfied. When you take the life of a person, you should serve more time. But hopeful this brings some closure, that people at least know who did it. I don’t buy the story that this state trooper said that he thought Jimmie Lee Jackson was going to grab his pistol and shoot him. I don’t buy that. The people that participated in this march in Marion, as well in Selma a few days later, were committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence.

AMY GOODMAN: Then talk about the Selma-to-Montgomery march, where you were so badly injured. Your skull was fractured. That — this happening right before that, the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Congress member Lewis.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, on March 7, 1965, we made a decision that we were going to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion from Selma to Montgomery. And along with one of Dr. King’s staff members, a young man by the name of Hosea Williams, I was asked to be one of the leaders of the march. We participated in a nonviolent workshop. Then 600 of us lined up in twos to walk all the way from Selma on to Montgomery. We crossed the Alabama River, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and when we got to the highest point on the bridge, down below, we saw a sea of blue, Alabama state troopers.

And we continued to walk. We came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, “I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.”

And Hosea Williams said to the major, “Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray.”

And the major said, “Troopers, advance!”

And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses, and releasing their tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick, and I had a concussion at the bridge. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. That Sunday became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

A little more than 45 years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge, through the streets of Selma, back to that little church that we had left from. But I do remember being at the church, and I stood up and said something like, “I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people who only desires to register to vote.” And that afternoon, 17 of us, hurt and sent to the hospital for a stay about three days.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member John Lewis describing the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Jimmie Lee Jackson is buried at the Heard Cemetery, an old slave burial ground, next to his father. Since his burial, his headstone has been vandalized, bearing the marks of at least one shotgun blast. On his stone is written the words “He was killed for man’s freedom.”

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, Jimmie Lee Jackson, along with so many others, must be looked up on as the fathers and mothers of the new America. His death, with others, has liberated not just a people, but a nation. And because of what he did and so many others did, President Johnson came to the Congress, made a dramatic speech, unbelievable address, to the Congress, presented the Voting Rights Act. The Congress debated that proposal, passed it. And on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed it into law. So I say, if it hadn’t been for the struggle of individuals like Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and so many others, and for the Congress and for what President Johnson did and said, President Barack Obama wouldn’t be president of America today.

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