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Marion, Ala., Remembers Death That Sparked 1965 Selma Marches

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day police in Alabama beat marchers going from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Less well-known is the violent confrontation that sparked the Selma marches. It happened a few weeks earlier during a demonstration in Marion, Ala. A black civil rights activist named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed. Rachel Lindley of member station WBHM visited Marion as people there remembered Jackson's life.

RACHEL LINDLEY, BYLINE: The Zion United Methodist Church in Marion was packed on a recent weekend.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing).

LINDLEY: People wearing their Sunday best clapped, cheered and honored Jimmie Lee Jackson. Fifty years ago, the 26-year-old Vietnam veteran and Baptist deacon was shot by an Alabama state trooper. It was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration.

LINDLEY: Bobby Singleton revved up the crowd.

BOBBY SINGLETON: Let's get some spirit up in here in honor of Jimmie Lee Jackson who died for us.

LINDLEY: Singleton says Jackson's death is an overlooked turning point in the voting rights story.

SINGLETON: Freedoms that we enjoy are on the backs of Jimmie Lee Jackson. So let's give him some praise up in here today.

BILLIE JEAN YOUNG: People like to, I think, feel that things started with Selma.

LINDLEY: That's Billie Jean Young, a professor at Judson College in Marion. She says in 1965 Marion had its own voting rights moment. After a series of demonstrations, an organizer working with Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail.

YOUNG: And people crowded Zion Church that night because they were very upset not just that he was jailed, but that there was talk that they planned to kill him.

LINDLEY: Hundreds of demonstrators tried to march from the church to the jail, but they didn't make it far. Walta Mae Kinnie was there.

WALTA MAE KINNIE: Half of us had gotten out of the church, and some had marched - started toward the jail. And they shut the lights out. The city turned the lights out.

LINDLEY: Alabama state troopers, local law enforcement and a mob of angry white residents met them outside.

KINNIE: They beat people and ran them every which way.

LINDLEY: Kinnie says she and many others still have scars from that night. According to news accounts the marchers weren't armed. Black Marion residents were attacked and beaten with billy clubs, whether they were marching or not. Jackson was shot in a cafe. He died a week later.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing).

LINDLEY: The people in Zion Church came to remember what history often forgets. There are no photographs of that night. Journalists were beaten, their cameras smashed. But word got out. A segregationist newspaper even called Marion a nightmare of state police stupidity. From there, Billie Jean Young says the story goes, someone said...

YOUNG: ...Well, we need to take his body to Montgomery and give it to George Wallace.

LINDLEY: The governor of Alabama. Albert Turner Jr. is the son of an organizer of the Selma march. He says Jackson's death was the catalyst for the marches to Montgomery.

ALBERT TURNER: He was not a rabble-rouser. He was an individual whose death summarized the extent that this country and this state would go to to keep African-American people from becoming full-fledged citizens

LINDLEY: C.T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference escaped the violence that night in 1965, but he returned to Marion for this service. He says what happened in this city will forever hold a strong place in his heart and the movements.

C.T. VIVIAN: Anytime anybody is killed, that should be the cry for everyone to speak to the fact that only life is worth dying for. It sounds strange, but it is true.

LINDLEY: The cafe where Jackson was shot is gone, but a plaque honors him nearby. The Alabama state trooper who killed Jackson wasn't indicted until 2007. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served six months in jail. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lindley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.