The Night the Lights Went Out in Marion

This is the Perry County Jail in Marion, Alabama, on the corner of Pickens and Greene Streets. Zion United Methodist Church sits on the next block, a few hundred feet away.

On 18 February 1965, James Lee Orange was arrested and held in this building for allegedly inducing local schoolchildren to stay out of school in protest of local voting practices. In protest of Orange’s detention, local civil rights leaders organized a march from Zion Methodist Church to the jail. Among the marchers: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old local deacon in St. James Baptist Church, and his 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee.

Albert (“Big Al”) Turner, a Marion native and civil rights leader, and Reverend James Dobynes, a local minister, led the march out of Zion at 9:15 pm. About five hundred peaceful protestors turned out of the church onto a Pickens Street lined on both sides with law enforcement officers, including Alabama State Troopers, Marion Police and Perry County deputies. Not fifty feet away from Zion, the marchers were confronted by state troopers, who ordered them to disperse. As planned, Reverend Dobynes knelt to pray before returning to the church. A state trooper clubbed him in the head and dragged him to the jail where Orange was being held.

The streetlights were suddenly turned off, and marchers began to be billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped in the dark. Troopers detained some marchers and forced others to return to the church, but blocked the front entrance, forcing them around back, where they were met with more violence.

Albert Turner saw it happen:

“In the melee in back of the church, Jimmy’s grandfather was hit in the back of the head with a billy club and his skull was bust. He left the church and went down to the café to have Jimmy carry him to the hospital. Jimmy immediately tried to rush out, forgetting about what was going on, to take his grandfather to the hospital. As he attempted to go out of the door, these troopers met him and forced them back into the building. Of course, Jimmy kind of insisted that he wanted to carry his grandfather to the doctor and they insisted that he did not go. From that they ganged him, physically subdued him and put him on the floor of the café. There they started to whip him up pretty bad. His mother was in the café also. She had come down with her daddy. She just couldn’t stand it no longer, so she took a drink bottle and tried to knock people off her son because they was going to kill him right there on the floor, it appeared. When  she hit them, they knocked her out. And then they took Jimmy and pinned him against the walls of the building and at close range they shot him in the side. After shooting him, they ran him out of the door of the café. Some of the remaining troopers was lined up on the sidewalk, back towards the church. He had to run through a cordon of policemen, then, with billy sticks, and as he ran down, they simply kept hitting him. He made it back to the door of the church, and just beyond the church, he fell.”

The rear side of Perry County Jail.

Jackson died eight days later. 

The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson led directly to the planning of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which took place eight days later. The first march, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7th, 1965, was a reprise of the state-sponsored violence at the Marion march, but on a much larger scale. A second march took place two days later, on “Turnaround Tuesday,” but did not proceed past the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 21, 1965, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, approximately 4,000 marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge under federal protection.

Cager Lee, Jackson’s grandfather, was on the front line in Selma that day, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. The March was “like nothing Selma had ever seen before or dreamed of,” Paul Good wrote in The Washington Post in March 1965. And Cager Lee “knew better what it was like than anyone else. For him, it was loss and gain to the roots of his soul.”

To Lee, the march from Selma to Montgomery was what his grandson had lived and died for. 

“Yes, it was worth the boy’s dyin’,” Lee said. “And he was a sweet boy. Not pushy, not rowdy. He took me to church every Sunday. worked hard. But he had to die for somethin’. And thank God it was for this.”

The Perry County Courthouse in Marion, as seen from the county jail.

A 1965 grand jury in Perry County declined to indict the trooper who shot Jackson. He was never questioned by local law enforcement or the FBI, whose agents were present in Marion on February 18th, 1965. For many years the identity of the state trooper who shot Jackson was not publicly known, until a 2005 profile in The Anniston Star revealed him to be James Bonard Fowler. In 2007, Fowler was indicted for second-degree murder. After years of delays, he pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter in 2010. He served five months of a six-month sentence.

 

2 Replies to “The Night the Lights Went Out in Marion”

    1. Pete! Were you here in Marion?!? If this is a prelude to your next book — and it should be — I can hook you up with sources!

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