Former state trooper expects indictment in civil rights death
By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY — A former state trooper said he expects to be indicted by a grand jury that convenes Wednesday to review the 1965 shooting death of a black man that inspired the historic "Bloody Sunday" protest by voting rights marchers at Selma.
District Attorney Michael Jackson said he is convening a special Perry County Grand Jury to review the fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson at Marion during a February 1965 demonstration that turned into a melee with state troopers.
The prosecutor, who is no relation to the victim, said the review should only take one day, and he is optimistic about getting an indictment. "I've got strong witnesses," he said.
Former state trooper James Bonard Fowler, the target of the grand jury investigation who wasn't asked to appear before it, maintains he shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in self-defense in a struggle over a gun, but he predicts the grand jury will indict him anyway.
"I kind of feel certain they will, but there is nothing I can do about it," he said Monday.
Jackson's daughter, Cordelia Herd Billingsley of Marion, said Tuesday the case was "swept under the rug" 42 years ago and she is grateful the district attorney is looking at Fowler.
"He took my father from me and my kids' grandfather. I want some closure," said Billingsley, who was 4 years old when her father died.
Fowler was among a contingent of state troopers ordered to Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. About 500 people were marching from a church toward the Marion city jail to protest the jailing of a civil rights worker when they were met by a line of law enforcement officers, including the troopers.
According to witness accounts, the street lights suddenly went out, billy clubs started swinging and a group of protesters ran into Mack's Cafe, pursued by state troopers.
In the melee, 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor as was his daughter, Viola Jackson, when she rushed to his side. Her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to help them and was shot, according to the cafe operator, Normareen Shaw.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, died days later at a Selma hospital.
Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "Parting the Waters" and other books about the civil rights movement, said efforts to register blacks to vote in Selma and surrounding towns had been fizzling and not getting any national media attention until Jackson was shot.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to preach his funeral, and in reaction to the killing, black civil rights demonstrators set out on March 7, 1965 on a hastily planned march from Selma to Montgomery. Amid clouds of tear gas and swinging clubs, they were attacked by troopers and deputies at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River at Selma — an event that became known as "Bloody Sunday."
The march later restarted with King, who was not present on Bloody Sunday, at the front this time and federal officers providing security. Branch said the events prompted Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ended various practices by segregationist that had kept blacks out of Southern polling places.
"Jimmie Lee Jackson is the reason there was a Selma-to-Montgomery march," Branch said.
The FBI looked into Jackson's death in 1965 but nothing ever happened. The case sat dormant for years until the district attorney decided to reopen it and got Gov. Bob Riley to post a $5,000 reward last year for new information.
"It brought forth some folks," the district attorney said, but he declined to say who might testify to the grand jury.
Fowler, 73, of Geneva has maintained Jackson tried to grab his revolver and he shot Jackson during a fight over the gun.
In an interview Monday, he said it's difficult to tell his side after 42 years because many of the state troopers who were present that night are dead, including Al Lingo, the trooper commander appointed by Gov. George C. Wallace and the person in charge at Marion and on "Bloody Sunday."
If Fowler is indicted, he said he will try to get his trial moved out of the west Alabama county.
"I don't think I can get a fair trial over there," he said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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