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Jimmie Lee Jackson did not live to see his grandfather, Cager Lee, finally receive a voting card in his early 80s at the Marion, Alabama Town Hall, August 20, 1965. The day came just two weeks after the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law by President Johnson. Congress might not have passed the law in 1965 without the pressure it felt as the whole world watched the spectacle of the Selma to Montgomery March five months earlier.

Jimmie Lee Jackson died on February 26, 1965 from injuries sustained a week prior, during the violent response by state and local police to a night time civil rights demonstration in Marion. His death was never properly investigated. No one was ever charged. He was twenty-six years old.

In 2005, Perry County District Attorney Michael Jackson reopened the Jimmie Lee Jackson murder investigation. At the end of August, responding to public pressure and a formal request from the District Attorney, Alabama Governor Bob Riley issued a $5000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the 1965 case. “The person responsible for this murder should be brought to justice,” Riley said.

Governor Riley’s public statement on Jimmie Lee Jackson was delivered by his press secretary, Jeff Emerson, as a recorded message on the answering machine of journalist Kenneth Mullinax. Mullinax published the Governor’s remarks in the Montgomery Advertiser on August 29. “The entire statement was maybe two sentences,” Mullinax wrote to me in an email. Emerson has not returned any of my repeated calls requesting a written statement from the Governor on Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death inspired a determined throng of activists to attempt the dangerous march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers had originally planned to deliver Jackson in his coffin to Governor George Wallace at the capitol in Montgomery. Their march for Jimmie Lee Jackson became the march for voting rights, which won Cager Lee his voting card, but won no justice for his dead grandson.

Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?

Former Alabama State Trooper, James Bonard Fowler, freely admits to having fired two shots into Jimmie Lee Jackson’s stomach. Fowler claims he acted in self-defense, after Jackson had grabbed for his gun. Other witnesses say police officers ganged up on Jackson, pinned him to a wall, and Fowler shot the defenseless man at close range.

Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?

Eyewitnesses, including civil rights leader Albert Turner and the owner of Mack’s Café, where Fowler shot Jackson, say that after the shooting, troopers dragged Jackson outside and had a bona fide lynching, beating him to a pulp with clubs and fists.

Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?

Jimmie Lee Jackson died at Good Samaritan hospital in Selma. But he was carried first to the local hospital in Marion. According to Albert Turner, Jackson waited there an hour without treatment and it was another hour or more before Jackson was admitted at the hospital in Selma, approximately thirty miles away.

Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?

District Attorney Jackson has the opportunity to investigate the full range of suspects to advance an honest account of racist repression in Alabama and advance the cause of racial reconciliation in a manner seldom pursued by government officials. If District Attorney Jackson’s investigation follows the usual pattern of investigations into Civil Rights era murders, he will miss this opportunity.

What does a missed opportunity look like?

Take Mississippi—long-time model for Alabama when it comes to race matters—as an example.

Mrs. Fannie L. Chaney, mother of slain civil rights worker James Chaney, recently disclosed that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood told the families of the three slain civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and her son James—that he presented evidence to the Grand Jury concerning all of the living suspects in the triple murder case. Ten suspects are living. The Grand Jury returned one indictment against one man, Edgar Ray Killen. Mrs. Chaney and her family later learned there was only one indictment because Mr. Hood presented evidence on only one man, Mr. Killen.

What does a missed opportunity look like?

When Neshoba County District Attorney Mark Duncan and Mississippi Attorney General James Hood spoke about the Killen case shortly after the conviction, they stated that one man—James Jordan—was responsible for James Chaney’s death. “Jordan shot Chaney,” they said. In 2000, award winning journalist Jerry Mitchell discovered a signed autopsy report that proved James Chaney was not quickly executed by a single bullet from one man’s gun. Instead, Chaney’s body showed signs of torture: his left arm broken in one place, his right arm broken in two places, trauma to his groin area. There is also longstanding evidence that Chaney was shot by more than one person.

What does a missed opportunity look like?

In 2004, a local Mississippi group called the Philadelphia Coalition issued a call for justice in the Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman murders. The Coalition routinely takes credit for pressuring Mississippi to bring charges against Edgar Ray Killen. Since the Killen conviction, Civil Rights Movement veterans and others have been asking, why only Killen? Co-chair of the Philadelphia Coalition, James E. Prince III, has been asking for tourist dollars to come to Philadelphia, his latest scheme: a civil rights museum for the infamously racist town.

What does a missed opportunity look like?

Try this scenario:

February 26, 2007. On the forty-second anniversary of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, a Grand Jury indicts James Bonard Fowler on murder charges. Six months later, on August 6, amid fanfare for the forty-second anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Fowler is found guilty—but of manslaughter, not murder. The jury could not agree whether Fowler shot Jackson with murderous intent or in self-defense. Some of us are asking, why only Fowler? A few months later, someone buys the former site of Mack’s Café and opens a civil rights museum.

Cold murder cases from the Civil Rights era are hot stuff in the South. You can bet James Prince is not the only one telling white people that "if they can't be behind the call for justice because it's the right thing . . . then they need to do it 'cause it's good for business." Easy money and pain-free absolution present more immediate rewards (enjoyed only by some) than pursuing justice and healing old and bitter wounds.

People with better intentions than James Prince might argue that Michael Jackson and other prosecutors should be realistic and work incrementally, starting with the most readily available trigger men and bombers. Yet justice demands ambition from these prosecutors. Even if pursuing more indictments in these cases does not yield many more convictions, it can generate a process of discovery that is otherwise unlikely.

What was the role of Olen Burrage, the multi-millionaire in Neshoba County on whose property the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found? What was the involvement of Tommy Horne, the former state legislator who served on the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission?

What was the responsibility of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state spy agency, which provided intelligence used by the Klansmen who murdered the three civil rights workers? What was the role of US Senator James Eastland, who received regular reports from the Sovereignty Commission? These questions might have been addressed on the public record if the Mississippi prosecutors had been more ambitious in the name of justice.

In Birmingham, AL, it was a "long awaited victory" when, after nearly thirty years, evidence previously suppressed by the FBI sent two Klansmen to prison for bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church and killing Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. What about the other racially motivated bombings in Birmingham? There were over fifty between 1947 and 1963. What about the evidence, which I and other researchers have found, of police involvement in some of the bombings?

For every civil rights era racial murder that has been opened for investigation in recent years, there are others begging for attention. For every known victim whose case has not been investigated, there are countless others whose names are forgotten and lost.

District Attorney Jackson should publicly pursue all of the evidence and all of the suspects in Jimmie Lee Jackson's death. To this end, the District Attorney should request that the Department of Justice make good on President Johnson's never fulfilled promise for a Justice Department investigation. To the limited extent that he is willing to speak publicly about the Jackson case, Governor Riley mentions only one perpetrator. Let's hope District Attorney Jackson can keep his eyes on the prize.

Benjamin Greenberg is a writer living in Boston, MA. He is author of the blog Hungry Blues and on the editorial collective of Dollars & Sense Magazine. His father, Paul Greenberg, was Special Assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early 1960s.

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September 21, 2006
Issue 198

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