Thursday, February 25, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1498: Jimmie Lee Jackson and the tragedy that was a catalyst for change

  Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Black man who lived in Perry County, Ala. became a central figure in voting rights history. Some say he went to a nighttime voting rights rally on February 18, 1965 in Marion, Ala. Others say he did not go to the rally but was waiting at Mack’s Café to take his mother and 82-year-old grandfather home. There is no doubt, however, that all three were in Mack’s Café.

  State troopers had busted the head of Jimmie Lee’s grandfather, Cager Lee, and blood was running down his face. Viola Jackson, his daughter, tried to help. A trooper attacked her. Jimmie Lee, who was unarmed, tried to help his mother take the 82-year-old Cager Lee to a doctor. A state trooper shot him twice in the stomach, and he started running. Other state troopers beat him as he ran. There is no doubt that these events were the forerunners of the Bloody Sunday March and the Selma to Montgomery March. There is no doubt that these events were critical catalysts on the road to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

  There is no doubt that there was a nighttime march called to protect the life of James Orange, an organizer for SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Orange had been in jail for helping organize school children to protest segregation and the denial of the right to vote. Word had come to Black leaders that Orange would be taken from the jail that night and lynched. There is no doubt that the nighttime rally at Zion United Methodist Church and the proposed march to the Perry County Jail were designed to save Orange’s life.

  There is no doubt that Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot on February 18 1965, by James Bonard Fowler, a White state trooper. He died eight days later on February 26, 1965. There is no doubt Jimmie Lee’s killer was indicted 40 some years later and released on bond. There is no doubt that he eventually pled guilty to manslaughter and received a puny sentence of six months to be served in the Geneva County Jail in his hometown. There is no doubt that he served just four months. The murder of Jimmie Lee was a terrible blow for the Jackson family, all who knew Jimmie Lee and so many others. But it laid the foundation for great victories. Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were all victories that were born from the terrible and untimely death of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

  These events are why the National Voting Rights Celebration commences on the third Sunday in February each year and ends on March 25, which was the end date of the Selma to Montgomery March. The Celebration commences with the Jimmie Lee Jackson Memorial Program in Perry County and concludes in Montgomery with the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. Right smack in the middle is the Bridge Crossing Jubilee centered around Bloody Sunday, where the vicious beating of 600 marchers by law enforcement on Sunday, March 7 was caught on television cameras and shocked the world. The brutal killing of Unitarian Universalist Minister Rev. James Reeb on March 11, 1965 added fuel to the burning fire.

  The Commemoration/Celebration of Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and other voting rights struggles commenced with a few people gathering annually on Bloody Sunday, and a lot of people gathering every five years for a full scale re-enactment of the Selma to Montgomery March. Eventually, SCLC started re-enacting the Selma to Montgomery March immediately after Bloody Crossing Sunday rather than on the original dates of March 21- 25. It did not make sense for people to return two weeks after the Bloody Sunday March for another march.

  After the National Voting Rights Museum was established in 1991, the re-enactment of the Bloody Sunday March on the first Sunday in March expanded from an afternoon event to an all-day event with activities at Brown Chapel AME Church, Tabernacle Baptist Church, First Baptist and other churches. When the Bridge Crossing Jubilee was established in 1993, the Commemoration/Celebration expanded to include Saturday as well as Sunday. Then it expanded to Friday, then to Thursday, and then to Monday. Sometimes there are as many as 50 events over the five day period.

  The Bridge Crossing Jubilee brought many to Selma including two sitting presidents, one sitting vice president, two former presidents and a host of nationally and internationally known political and leaders and dignitaries. Crowds have grown until they exceeded 100,000 last year. People come from all over the world, and the publicity is not only national but also international.

  The Bridge Crossing Jubilee was always more than a collection of memorial programs and celebrations. It continues the struggle for the right to vote and other human rights. That’s why there are so many workshops and activities that move people to additional involvement and greater commitment. It all began in Perry County, Ala. on February 18, 1965 with the terrible death of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

EPILOGUE - Sometimes things happens that we perceive as terrible setbacks. However, time often reveals that such happenings are forces pushing us forward rather than setting us back. The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson was a terrible tragedy that pushed America forward. That’s why we commemorate and celebrate his death, Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other struggles and victories.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

No comments:

Post a Comment