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Alabama Grand Jury Issues Indictment in 1965 'Bloody Sunday' Civil Rights Killing

A grand jury considering the 1965 shooting death of a black man by a state trooper during a civil rights demonstration returned a sealed indictment Wednesday after a two-hour review.

District Attorney Michael Jackson, who announced the indictment, said the charge and the identity of the person indicted would not be made public until it is served.

The killing of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson inspired the historic "Bloody Sunday" protest at Selma. Retired state trooper James Bonard Fowler, who was the target of the grand jury investigation in the case, has said he expected to be indicted in Jackson's death.

Fowler maintains that he shot Jackson in self-defense. He said there was a struggle over his gun while he and other troopers were being struck with bottles, but he said he was not asked to appear before the Perry County grand jury.

Fowler did not answer his home phone and the indictment was announced, and messages left with his attorney, George Beck of Montgomery, were not immediately returned.

All of the witnesses who appeared before the panel Wednesday are black, and none witnessed the shooting. But Vera Jenkins Booker, the night supervising nurse at the Selma hospital where Jimmie Lee Jackson died, gave the young man's account.

"He said, `I was trying to help my grandfather and my mother, and the state trooper shot me.' He didn't give any name," Booker told reporters after appearing before the grand jury.

Some of those who were present in Marion on the night of the shooting are now dead, as are two FBI agents who originally investigated Jackson's death. The district attorney, however, said he had "strong witnesses."

On Feb. 18, 1965, witnesses say, about 500 people were marching from a church toward the Marion city jail to protest the jailing of a civil rights worker when the street lights went out and law officers began swinging billy clubs.

A group of protesters ran into Mack's Cafe, pursued by state troopers. The cafe operator, Normareen Shaw, said 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor along with his daughter, Viola Jackson, whose son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot trying to help them.

Fowler said Jackson had grabbed the trooper's gun from its holster and was shot as they struggled over it. He said Jackson hit him on the head with a bottle in the fight.

The fatal shooting galvanized civil rights activists who had not been getting national media attention in their efforts to register blacks to vote at Selma, said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "Parting the Waters" and other books about the civil rights movement.

In reaction to the killing, black demonstrators set out on March 7, 1965, from Selma toward Montgomery. They were routed by club-swinging officers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an attack that became famous as "Bloody Sunday" and spurred passage of the federal Voting Rights Act.

"Jimmie Lee Jackson is the reason there was a Selma-to-Montgomery march," Branch said.

Jackson's daughter, Cordelia Herd Billingsley of Marion, was 4 when her father was killed. She said Tuesday that case had been "swept under the rug" for decades.

"I want some closure," she said.

Jackson's fatal shooting sat dormant for years until Michael Jackson, who is no relation to the victim, decided to reopen it.

Prosecutors elsewhere have taken up other major civil rights-era slayings, including the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963 and the slaying of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964 — people in west Alabama began to call for a new examination of Jackson's death.