Jimmie Lee Jackson inspired Selma March

GEORGE E. CURRY | 2/2/2015, 3:41 a.m.
Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis captured the headlines, it was the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee ...
George Curry

(NNPA) – Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis captured the headlines, it was the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson that inspired the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.

After fighting in the Vietnam War, Jackson had returned home to Marion, Alabama, which also happens to be the birthplace of Coretta Scott King, about 30 miles northwest of Selma in the soil-rich Black Belt region of Alabama. Although Blacks made up a majority of Black Belt counties, they were less than 1 percent of the registered voters.

A pulpwood worker, Jackson had attempted five times to register, none successfully. In an effort to expand voter registration in the area, James Orange, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference field organizer, and George Best of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had moved to Perry County in early 1965. Before long, local residents were trying to register to vote, most of them for the first time.

On Feb. 18, Orange, who included students in the movement, was arrested, allegedly for contributing to delinquency of minors. That set off a round of protests

Shortly after being released from jail in Selma, C. T. Vivian of SCLC was sent to Marion to address a mass meeting at Zion Chapel Methodist Church. The plan was to hold a night march to the jail, which would cover less than the length of a football field, to demand Orange’s release. If confronted by police, demonstrators were instructed to kneel in prayer and return to the church.

But White law enforcement officials had another plan.

In his excellent book, Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South, Charles E. Fager recounted:

“But when the preachers at the head of the line came out of the door, the sidewalk was lined with helmeted state troopers, long, black billy clubs at the ready, and they were stopped less than a half block down. ‘This is an unlawful assembly,’ the police chief announced over a public address system. ‘You are hereby ordered to disperse. Go home or go back to the church.’

“Just then all of the street lights around the square went out, and troopers began clubbing the Rev. James Dobynes, a black minister at the front of the line.”

NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani was knocked to the ground, bleeding from a head wound, and another journalist, UPI photographer Pete Fisher, was also beaten and his camera was smashed into tiny pieces.

“The panicked crowd tried to get back into the church, but the doors were jammed full and the people spilled around it down a side street, taking cover wherever they could,” Fager wrote. “The troopers came after them, clubs swinging, splitting scalps and smashing ribs as they advanced. Two or three dozen people rushed through the doors of Mack’s Café, a few doors down, seeking refuge in its crowded, dark interior. Among them were Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man of twenty-six years old, his mother, Viola and his grandfather Cager Lee, eighty-two. The old man had already been caught and beaten behind the church, and was bleeding.