He lay on the pavement with a bullet wound in his stomach, engulfed in chaos and darkness.
It was 1965. A year soon scarred by social and political upheaval: The assassination of Malcolm X. Bloody Sunday. The Vietnam War. The Watts Riots.
Jimmie Lee Jackson would see none of it.
The 26-year-old showed up the night of Feb. 18 in Marion, Alabama, where hundreds of people had gathered to march in protest of the arrest of a local civil rights activist. When police and state troopers intervened to break up the march, the scene outside Zion United Methodist Church turned violent.
Fists. Feet. Nightsticks. Bottles. Cattle prods. And a single shot from an Alabama state trooper’s revolver that ripped through Jackson’s stomach as he tried to shield his mother from the attacks.
His death eight days later altered the course of American history. It united activists in Marion and Selma, making their combined campaigns for desegregation and voting rights powerful enough to resonate around the world.
Yet Jackson’s name is little more than a footnote in time.
“It was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson that provoked the march from Selma to Montgomery,” said John Lewis, a civil rights icon and U.S. congressman, in 2007. “It was his death and his blood that gave us the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson is the forgotten catalyst of the voting right movement
Before the Selma to Montgomery march, there was a night march in Marion where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965.
Jessica Koscielniak, USA TODAY
As the nation nears one year since the death of George Floyd, who inspired another national outcry for racial equality, USA TODAY looks at Jackson’s story to understand why he is a forgotten martyr of the civil rights movement.
USA TODAY inspected hundreds of unredacted FBI files that few have seen, along with court records and newspaper accounts from the 1960s that illustrate the racial tension in central Alabama in the weeks leading up to Jackson’s death.
We also interviewed dozens of historians, eyewitnesses, local citizens and relatives of Jackson to reconstruct what happened the night Jackson was fatally shot and to shed light on who he was as a person, why his legacy is overshadowed and how his death in 1965 is connected to the racial reckoning America experienced last year.
Fifty-five years after Jackson’s death, in a city more than a thousand miles north, another Black man lay motionless on the pavement. This time, his life was draining under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The death of 46-year-old Floyd ignited a movement of its own.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide poured into the streets to protest racial inequality, police violence and the systems that perpetuate racism decades after the civil rights movement.
Floyd’s name echoed through every major American city and indeed, around the world, along with the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Every movement has a catalyst, the person, place or situation that moves people to action. In 2020, it was Floyd. In 1965, it was Jackson.
But with Jackson, almost no one says his name.
Before a bullet ripped through Jackson’s body, he was just an ordinary man. He once chopped wood for a living, earning $6 a day. He was a deacon at a local Baptist church and worked at the county hospital. And like many other Black folks living in the rural Deep South, he was frustrated with segregation and being denied the right to vote.
Jimmie Lee and his little sister, Emma Jean Jackson, grew up in a shotgun shack on the edge of a stream.
After Jimmie Lee’s father died in a car accident, his grandfather, Cager Lee, became his father figure. And as Lee aged, he relied on Jimmie Lee, whom he called “Bunky,” for transportation.
“My grandfather depended on him so much,” said Evelyn Rogers, one of Jimmie Lee’s cousins.
“Bunky, take me to town. Bunky, I need to go to the store. Bunky, I need to go to this person’s house.”
After Jimmie Lee’s death, few details about him emerged. In this era, the media didn’t explore the personal lives of regular Black men who were killed by police. Therefore, the story of Jimmie Lee’s life has been largely lost to time as the family members closest to him have died. His sister and closest living relative, Emma, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But USA TODAY interviewed several other relatives to get a glimpse into who Jimmie Lee was.
Rogers recalled Jimmie Lee as a modest man who cared most about taking care of his family. “He was a very simple guy,” she said.
Cousin Anne Robinson, now 75, remembers his beautiful smile and how Jimmie Lee let her and Emma borrow his 1963 green and white Chevy so they could learn how to drive.
“He just always liked to help people,” she said.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot on a February day filled with all the classic ingredients for mayhem in the Deep South: segregation and mounting racial tensions, Black folks daring to push back against inequality, police officers steadfast on enforcing the status quo and civil rights leaders hoping to bring national attention to bear on Alabama.
In January 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived in nearby Selma to electrify the voting rights campaign. Central Alabama was one of the worst places in America when it came to suppressing Black votes.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation tactics enforced by police all but ensured that only white people voted. Government records show that in 1960, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County, where Selma is located, were registered to vote even though they comprised more than half the county population. Black voters accounted for just 2% in Perry County, where Marion is located, despite representing nearly two-thirds of the county population.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and local groups, including the Perry County Civic Justice League, had been focused on voter registration campaigns for months. But the arrival of King and other national civil rights figures both energized local protests and agitated law enforcement.
Black residents were chafing against an Alabama political system that didn’t want to yield to racial integration. They marched. They sat in the “whites only” areas at movie theaters and restaurants. They boycotted businesses. The tension was mounting.
In early February, two weeks before Jackson was shot, hundreds of students walked out of a Marion high school to protest segregation, starting a three-week boycott of school.
Police were hauling Black youths off to state prison camps by the busload.
The newspaper in Alabama’s state capital noted the unprecedented number of arrests made in Selma and Marion.
“800 More Arrested As Tension Builds,” a Montgomery Advertiser front-page headline on Feb. 4, 1965, read.
The jails were overflowing with Black people, said Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights leader who worked in Selma at the time. “We wouldn’t let up. We kept marching, kept the pressure on. We were breaking the system of local government.”
On the morning of Feb. 18, 1965, FBI agents were on the ground, monitoring the civil rights protest activity in Marion. Seldom-seen notes agents made on their reports and dozens of eyewitness testimonies help re-create the day’s events.
“Negroes came out of church with a half-dozen picket signs,” an FBI agent wrote at 10:56 a.m. “125 Negroes crossed the street, going north by the courthouse. They stopped and walked back, and were stopped … by the Chief of Police.”
That morning, police arrested James Orange, an activist key to SCLC’s voter registration efforts in central Alabama, for encouraging students to join a march.
Activists learned that a group of Ku Klux Klansmen planned to lynch Orange while he was in police custody, Lafayette said. So organizers planned a nighttime march from the church to the jail for his protection.
However, Marion Police Chief T.O. Harris learned more civil rights leaders were coming from Selma, and “they planned to put on a show that night.” So he and Perry County Sheriff William Loftis sought help from Alabama state troopers.
As the sun fell, the mood began to shift. Hundreds of Black people poured into Zion United church shortly before 7 p.m. They raised their voices in song; the melody wafting out of the red brick and wooden steepled church caught the ear of FBI agent Archibald Riley as he peered through a second-story window in a building across the street.
“Singing was louder than other nights,” Riley noted.
Inside the church, a packed sanctuary listened to a fiery address from the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights leader and King’s right-hand man. The congregation then prepared to march one block north to the jail to protest Orange’s arrest.
Before the congregation exited the building, scores of police officers surrounded the church outside. One Alabama state trooper estimated there were 100 fellow officers on the scene. Assuming the protest would “get out of hand,” the chief of police and sheriff already planned to stop the march before it got too far from the church, according to Chief Harris.
At about 9:25 p.m., the church’s double doors opened wide, and the marchers emerged walking side by side in pairs.
They headed north toward the jail, walking past the bus station, where they were confronted by a police blockade. The police chief addressed the marchers over a bull horn.
“Chief Harris advised the Negroes that they were in an unlawful assembly and for them to disperse and go home or back to the church,” a FBI agent noted.
Face to face with police officers and directed to disperse, the Rev. James Dobynes, one of the protest leaders, knelt to pray. As he prayed, the first blow was delivered: Dobynes was struck with a nightstick. More police officers and troopers followed suit, striking protesters with billy clubs. The chaos had begun.
Robinson, Jackson’s cousin, tensed up as she recalled a memory she’s long tried to bury. Robinson was 18 the night of the melee, but she remembers vividly the harrowing moment when officers began flailing their nightsticks.
“N——! What are you doing n——! It’s illegal. You’re not supposed to be here,” Robinson recalled officers yelling.
“And then next thing you know, after that you hear bam, bam, bam, bam,” she said, imitating the officers swinging their clubs.
“People were screaming, hollering, jumping over fences, jumping in ditches trying to get away.” It was dark, Robinson said. And unlike every other night, “the streetlights were not on.”
Police tried to force marchers back inside the church, but some fled into Mack’s Cafe, a hangout next door. Amid the fray outside, Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather was attacked.
Lee was standing behind the church when a “man with clubs” came around and said, “n—- go home,” he told the New York Times days after the assault.
“They hauled me off and hit me and knocked me to the street and kicked me,” Lee told the newspaper. “It was hard to take for an old man whose bones are dry like cane.”
Lee then sought refuge inside Mack’s Cafe.
What happened next varies depending on who you ask and whose written account you believe. What’s certain is that dozens of marchers were bludgeoned and hospitalized that night, including Jackson’s grandfather and mother. Jackson was the only person killed.
Jackson had just finished his shift at the county hospital and was headed to the church to pick up his mother and grandfather, Rogers said.
Jackson told the FBI days after he was shot, while still in the hospital, that he initially went into Mack’s Cafe to help get his grandfather to the hospital. As they were leaving the cafe, he said, two troopers forced them back inside and struck Jackson on the side, his arms and his head with their clubs.
Emma Jackson told the FBI she saw her brother enter the cafe to help their grandfather and she saw the troopers force them back inside. She said Jimmie Lee Jackson then stood near the counter and cigarette machine. He was visibly upset, so his sister “kept talking to (him) to calm him down.”
“But he did not appear as if he were going to cause trouble,” she told the FBI.
Jackson told the FBI he was drinking from a bottle when he saw a trooper hitting his mother. He went to assist his mother, but his sister held him back. Jackson recalled standing near the doorway when he was shot in the stomach by a trooper. He then ran out of the cafe. Several troopers followed and beat him with their nightsticks before he collapsed a few yards away.
Most eyewitnesses corroborated Jackson’s version of events, agreeing that he and his grandfather were pushed back into the cafe while trying to leave. Once inside, police began beating Black folks with their billy clubs. A scuffle ensued between Jackson’s mother and the police. One eyewitness said they saw Jackson’s mother, who was later hospitalized with a head injury, clubbed on the head. Shortly thereafter, several eyewitnesses said they heard a gunshot.
But police had a different version of events.
In a written statement provided to the FBI, state trooper B.J. Hoots said police entered Mack’s Cafe because a group of African American people were throwing bricks and bottles at them. Fellow trooper James Bonard Fowler shot Jackson only after Jackson grabbed Fowler’s gun inside the holster, “apparently trying to get it out.”
Fowler said Jackson hit him twice over the head with a bottle while trying to pry his firearm out of the holster. Fowler staggered backward as the two tussled, pulling his gun free from the holster, and the gun fired when Jackson struck his hand with the bottle, he said.
No civilian witnesses reported seeing Jackson struggling to take Fowler’s firearm away.
Jackson was admitted to the Black hospital in Selma hours after being shot. He died eight days later.
Off a narrow, two-lane state highway, in an unmarked gravesite that blends in with the surrounding trees, one tombstone stands out. It sits atop a seven-layer bed of bricks, flanked by two wreaths of red flowers. An image of Jesus is carved into the large gray headstone, but it’s marred by several bullet holes. Here, on the outskirts of Marion, Jackson is buried with the rest of his family.
“It was really a tragedy,” Jackson’s cousin Evelyn Rogers said. “Here’s someone who has never been in trouble. All he did was work and take care of his mother.”
A few miles from his gravesite, in downtown Marion, Jackson’s legacy is visible for all to see. A historical marker stands on the lawn of the Perry County courthouse.
“Jimmie Lee Jackson, Voting Rights Martyr,” it reads on one side.
“Jackson’s Death Led To ‘Bloody Sunday’ March,” the other side says.
Across the street, at the Zion United Methodist Church, Jackson’s face is engraved on another memorial plaque. These permanent markers represent his enduring legacy.
“He was the first martyr of the voting rights movement,” said Albert Turner Jr., a Perry County commissioner. “Anytime (Black people) go to the polls and have a right to exercise their vote, it’s because of what happened in this little town of Marion.”
Ironically, Jackson and Marion have been overshadowed by the very march his death inspired.
One key reason Selma has long obscured Marion is because there was no video footage to capture the violence that occurred the night Jackson was shot. The police chief banned photographers and reporters from using lights or flashbulbs.
“There’s no footage of that night,” Turner said. “They intentionally shot out all the lights. They intentionally destroyed every camera of news media that was there.”
The reporters and photographers present the night of Jackson’s shooting were harassed and beaten for trying to do their jobs. One NBC reporter was hospitalized after being struck in the head with a nightstick, according to FBI reports. Another reporter from United Press International received a blow to the back of the head and was hit five times in the face after taking two flash pictures with his camera.
Jackson had two funerals: one in Selma, and one in Marion. Thousands of people attended both services. But at his funeral in his hometown on March 3, 1965, Jackson’s place in history would be spelled out clearly by the preeminent leader of the civil rights movement.
Speaking from a lectern just a few feet away from Jackson’s casket, King called Jackson “a martyred hero of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
A crowd of hundreds of people, stretched along an Alabama highway, walked 3 miles in the rain to bury Jackson.
Black people were angry. Many of the Black farmers in Marion wanted to arm themselves and turn to violence, said Lafayette, one of activists working in Selma. In fact, civil rights leaders canceled a march in Marion after Jackson’s death because they feared it wouldn’t be peaceful.
“They didn’t think our nonviolent approach worked after seeing what happened to Jimmie,” Lafayette said. “We feared they would come to the march with their guns, and that could have been ugly.”
But Jackson’s death galvanized hundreds more people to become active participants in the movement. Some people wanted to march from Marion to the state capital, Montgomery, and lay Jackson’s body on the capitol steps for segregationist Gov. George Wallace to see. Leaders eventually abandoned that plan and settled on a march, without Jackson’s body, from Selma to Montgomery.
On March 7, little more than a week after Jackson died, about 600 demonstrators marched undisturbed through downtown Selma until they reached the steel-arched Edmund Pettus Bridge that stretched across the Alabama River.
Led by Lewis and Hosea Williams, a civil rights activist who was there in place of King, demonstrators were met with brutal force from state troopers and local police. They were attacked with clubs and tear-gassed by officers wearing helmets and gas masks.
The video footage and images from that day shocked the country and led to the passage of a landmark federal law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination at the voting booth.
Bloody Sunday secured Selma’s place in the civil rights movement. But it also overshadowed the brutality in Marion that claimed Jackson’s life.
“Everyone saw what happened on that bridge,” Turner said. “No one saw what happened to Jimmie and what happened in Marion. Out of sight, out of mind.”
After a while, they all began to blur together. Michael Jackson, 57, can’t recall the names, just a few hazy details surrounding their deaths. The name of the Black man who was shot in his back by a police officer escapes him. The young man who was shot while carrying a cellphone, too.
Michael Jackson’s recollection may be overwhelmed by the onslaught of police violence, but every time he hears about a Black man killed by law enforcement, it stirs up memories of one person.
“Every time I see this across the country, I do think of Jimmie Lee Jackson,” said Michael Jackson. The men are not related.
For decades, no one could prove who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. The FBI files had been sealed. Then in 2004, Fowler admitted to a reporter from the Anniston (Alabama) Star that he was the shooter. Michael Jackson, who was just elected as the state’s second African American district attorney, led the charge to prosecute Fowler.
At age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter but insisted that he acted in self-defense. Fowler, who told a reporter in 2005 that “Black people fared better when they stayed in their place,” was sentenced to six months in state prison.
“To think that Jimmie Lee was killed almost 60 years ago, and here we are today still talking about the same thing,” Michael Jackson said.
Watching the uprising after Floyd’s death crystallized the parallels with the civil rights movement, said Margaret Burnham, a professor of law and Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Project director.
“What Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death did was it galvanized and catapulted an already organized national community around civil rights to come out and say no more and push even harder for voting rights,” she said.
“In that sense, it’s similar to what occurred after George Floyd’s death in May of 2020,” she said, where an already organized community was able to take members’ concerns to a higher national and global level because of the spotlight the incident shone on Minneapolis.
“Both the Jimmie Lee killing and the George Floyd killing were sparks in a dry forest.”
Today, because Black people are able to vote freely, they hold esteemed political offices that were unimaginable decades ago, said Michael Jackson.
“There is no me, no (Barack) Obama or Vice President (Kamala) Harris without Jimmie,” Michael Jackson said.
Selma’s symbolic role in the civil rights movement is set in stone. But the complete story of how Black people earned equal voting rights can’t be authored without Jimmie Lee Jackson and what transpired in Marion the night he was shot.
In many ways, the legacy of Selma stands on the shoulders of Marion.
“I don’t care how many times you holler Selma,” Turner said, sitting in his Perry County Courthouse office, which is across the street from where Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot.
“You got to ask yourself, what are y’all doing down there on the bridge? Why are you crossing the bridge?
“Selma has its part in it. But you have to go back to the beginning of the book. If you don’t read the beginning of the book, you can’t get the full story. The reason that they were marching on Bloody Sunday was because of what happened here.”