Blood at the Ballot Box: The Murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo
I try not to talk about race. At least not all of the time. But I keep coming back to it. It forms the backdrop of my life. And I want to move on to other things — I really do.
But the ghosts of the dead won’t let me.
You know the name of George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. But do you know Jimmie Lee Jackson from Marion, Alabama? Probably not. He’s about to be lost to the mists of time. But this gentle soldier was born in 1938. And he, for some strange reason, wanted to vote.
There is something about voting that defines one as an adult. Oh, some will disagree. “But I’m an adult! I don’t have to vote to be grown,” you think. Actually, you do. It’s making your mark on the society you live in. But all of this is meaningless to those who have taken that right for granted.
When you take voting for granted, it may seem to be so unimportant. As I sit here with my mail-in ballot before me, I’ve got the freedom to have my say. And I’ve earned the right to complain. You don’t vote? Don’t talk to me about politics, local or national. You simply have no voice.
Where was I?
I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced the desire to vote and wasn’t able to…I haven’t. I know some people right now who won’t. But me? I’ve missed very few elections. If I get tired, or overworked, I remember people like Jimmie Lee who tried to vote at least five times.
And then, I stop whatever I’m doing and I vote.
James Edward Orange wouldn’t stop singing
The Jimmy Lee Jackson story started when another man, field secretary James Orange of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), 300 pounds strong and six feet tall, was arrested. Orange was mentoring young people in the community; his specialty was teaching them to be nonviolent.
But when he encouraged young followers to help during voting drives for the Black community, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors.
The teenagers missed school, the authorities said. But they traditionally said nothing when the children missed school to pick cotton.
Mr. Orange also committed the unforgivable sin of teaching them “freedom songs.” He was placed in jail in Marion, Perry County, Alabama on February 18th, 1965…singing in a loud, melodious voice as he entered the facility. Like the children who followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the old legend, five hundred teenagers followed Mr. Orange, singing his song.
But fear and terror ran through the community. Could he be lynched? Was this a set-up in motion? People of color had been lynched for a lot less. So they planned a march to protest his unjust imprisonment and to call attention to their main cause; which was the inability to vote. The attention it would gain would make it harder, they thought, for unknown persons to somehow break into the jail and grab Mr. Orange and hang him.
It was the spark for what happened next with another man in Marion, Alabama; that was Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family
Mr. Jimmie Lee Jackson inherited the family farm after his father died when he was 18. Jimmie Lee, a church deacon, his grandfather, 82-year-old Cager Lee (the son of a slave), and his mother Viola Lee Jackson had already attempted to vote several times since 1962 but were unable to do so.
He had already written to a federal judge protesting the treatment that Black people in his community received, but they had heard nothing. The three, along with his little sister, agreed to join the march.
It was to start at the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama at 7 pm. It was dark the night of February 18th, but the 500 people, led by C. T. Vivian, only had to go across the town square to get to the Perry County jail. They prayed first and left the church. Then, they were instructed to halt, which they did.
Next, witnesses say, the streetlights were turned off! The marchers were set upon in pitch dark by Alabama state troopers, police, and deputies who beat and arrested them. There was little opportunity to escape. No age, young or old, was spared. It was a scene of brutality, blood, cracked heads, and chaos.
He had already written to a federal judge protesting the treatment that Black people in his community received, but they had heard nothing.
A later report (2007) from a State Trooper alleged that the protesters were armed with bricks, bottles, and stones. This was his defense. But the protestors, in their desire to be on the right side of history, had been trained to be non-violent. They had no weapons in 1965…
Meanwhile, Jimmie Lee tried to pull his family to safety:
Wandering through the crowd, he finds his grandfather, and the two seek refuge in the nearby Mack’s Café. Inside, Viola Jackson was attacked by two state troopers and fell to the ground. Jimmie Lee’s plea to leave was ignored. While rescuing his mother, a trooper grabbed him and shoved him into a cigarette machine and shot him twice in the stomach.
Shock spread through the diner. No one was armed but the troopers, right?
A witness to the shooting overheard one trooper ask, “Who got him?” Another responded, “I got him.” This was James Bonard Fowler.
The troopers continued to beat the wounded Jimmie Lee and he fell to the ground outside the diner. He was eventually taken to Samaritan Hospital in Selma. At first, he seemed to be on the mend. Martin Luther King, Jr went to speak with him four days later. Both *C. T. Vivian and John Lewis, King’s associates in the SCLC, joined the men as they discussed the future of the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Selma was at least 50 percent Black, but only about 2 percent were registered (allowed) to vote. They aimed to change that.
Jimmie Lee probably thought about this as he lay in the hospital bed. He assumed, perhaps, that he’d play a part in it. Wouldn’t that have been something? To work in tandem with men like this; men and women both -determined to move the ball down the road in the fight to vote!
And in the double down of the century, Col. Al Lingo (Director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety) delivered an arrest warrant for Jimmie Lee while he was in the hospital — for assaulting a law officer.
But eight days after he was shot in the stomach, twenty-six-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson was dead.
Of course. But there were numerous witnesses. Jimmie Lee was trying to stop his mother from being brutalized, they said.
The legacy of James Bonard Fowler
Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler pled guilty and was sent to jail for second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson on November 15, 2010, forty-five years later. He served five months of a six-month sentence due to ill health.
However, they didn’t get to him soon enough. Remember, Fowler shot Jimmie Lee in 1965. In 1966, he shot 34-year-old Nathan Johnson twice in the chest — dead. Fowler said Johnson tried to attack him. That time there were no witnesses.
Fowler had a criminal life interrupted by police work and the military. In 1968, he beat his boss up so badly after receiving a poor performance review that the man was taken away in an ambulance. Only then, after two murders that we know about, was he released from the Alabama State Trooper organization.
He went to Vietnam to fight, winning several medals along the way. Then he was asked to kill a commanding Army officer and when he realized the plot was found out, he turned against the requestor and testified against him in court.
Then Fowler was caught for heroin trafficking in Thailand and convicted. He served five years in a Thai prison. After his release, he returned to Alabama and became a farmer. He might have been finally too old to kill more people. We’ll never know.
When Fowler aged — as he was fortunate enough to do, unlike some who had crossed his path, he said he wasn’t a racist. In fact, when he went to jail, he expressed remorse for his actions.
But, Mr. Fowler said, race mixing was toxic for white and black America. “They always fared better when they stayed in their place,” he said.
The former Alabama State trooper, soldier, and convicted drug dealer/murderer Fowler died in 2015 at the age of 81.
After Jimmie Lee Jackson died
Civil Rights leaders were furious especially since he had been improving. They wanted to ensure that he did not die in vain. At his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr said:
“Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality. His death must prove that unmerited suffering does not go unredeemed. We must not be bitter and we must not harbor ideas of retaliating with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers.”
And that event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
It is estimated that six hundred people set out to march that day. In a time of limited social media, they were determined to publicize the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and peacefully make their case for the right to vote.
They made it to the Edmund Pettis Bridge. On the other side, they met a group of troopers, deputies, police, and a gaggle of anonymous white men. That was because that morning Dallas County Sheriff Clark put out a call for white males over 21 to report for duty; and they deputized them just that morning.
The melee was broadcast live as viewers found their normal programming interrupted. Representative John Lewis (then SCLC organizer) and Hosea Williams were front and center.
Americans watched as troopers charged the marchers and mowed them down. Tear gas canisters were thrown into the crowd. Mounted troopers used their horses as weapons upon the marchers, stomping on them if they could, causing numerous injuries.
The cameras rolled.
Americans had a front seat during prime time as they watched grown men beat men, women, and children with billy clubs. Mounted troopers forced the remaining marchers back over the bridge.
This is how important a vote is…
There were a variety of opinions regarding this one-sided battle. What were the marchers thinking? How dare they think they should be able to vote? But in 1965, this was actually a common train of thought in racist circles. It was, one could say, a warped theology hard-baked into a certain segment of the population. It was as if hatred was injected into their mother’s milk.
Why on earth, they asked, would Black people want to vote anyway?
More had to die
Two days later on March 9th, the march commenced again. Martin Luther King, Jr had arrived, but even though the troopers moved aside to let them through, he led the disappointed marchers back to the church. Why? He was waiting for official federal protection. Arrangements were being made for another march when disaster hit.
Three white ministers from out of town; the Reverends Clark Olsen, Orloff Miller, and James Reeb had come to support the growing civil rights movement. They had participated in the aborted march with King that day and were waiting to hear a word about another attempt. After finishing their dinner at Walker’s Cafe in Selma, they walked back to their quarters. Three strangers appeared out of an alley nearby.
It was the KKK; the dreaded Ku Klux Klan.
There, several men attacked them, screaming, “You want to know what it’s like to be a real n*ger?”
One hit the Reverend James Reeb in the head with a pipe and cracked his skull. He was incoherent. His colleagues were hurt as well, but they could see he was in trouble. But where to go? The nearest hospitals wouldn’t do; a Black hospital nearby didn’t have the expertise or equipment-but they went there anyway.
Requiring medical attention and likely to be denied treatment by physicians at Selma’s all-white hospital, Reeb was taken to Burwell Infirmary, the town’s medical facility for African Americans.
The infirmary’s doctor recommended a neurologist and brain surgeon; none of which was available at their facility. But they arranged to obtain an ambulance from a funeral parlor. But during the trip, they had a flat tire on the road and very little assistance from the police. In addition, a black doctor and attendant were traveling with the three white men, and it added a racial complexity that is hard to understand. These factors caused unnecessary delays. It took three hours to reach the Universal Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, and during that time period, Reeb’s condition worsened.
As soon as the minister arrived he was taken into brain surgery.
However, the surgery was not a success. Reeb, a graduate of Princeton, father of four, lapsed into a coma and died two days later.
The alleged killers, Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle, and Namon “Duck” Hoggle were charged with first-degree murder after James Reeb’s death, but they were protected by the town and never convicted. There were witnesses, but one was judged to be mentally unstable. Two others left the state.
The news of the Reverend Reeb’s death fell hard on the nation. There were incredible amounts of anger and regret — even rage.
Thousands of vigils were held in his honor throughout the United States. 30,000 people in Boston alone mourned and held a special service. There were marches at Princeton, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Northfield, Minnesota.
President Lyndon B. Johnson contacted his widow to offer his condolences. He sent a plane to fly her to Birmingham. The president also sent a plane for Reeb’s father in Casper, Wyoming so he too could go to Birmingham, Alabama.
However, none of the guilty paid the price for his murder.
March 25, 1965; the third march
Just as the Sheriff put out a call for white men over 21, the leaders of the civil rights movement also put out a call; it was for those who believed in the cause of justice. And they came. Over 25,000 people, many of them white, and from the clergy, came down to support another march.
This march, escorted by the federalized Alabama National Guard, was successful.
It took five days. The protestors were exhausted but satisfied that they had completed the 54-mile march. They began shuttling people back to their hometowns. All was well.
That night, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, was driving a group of marchers returning from Montgomery to Selma. Nineteen-year-old Leroy Moten was the only rider left — they were co-driving because of the long distances. It was Viola’s turn.
The black high school senior was excited to be in the movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. He also had no idea that he was just a few inches from death. This is because they were never chased. Viola was singing, he said, and then the windshield blew out.
Viola was shot in the head and died instantly. When you observe the pictures of her vehicle, you will notice that most of the glass is gone. There are driblets of blood on the exterior of the front door. It was a senseless murder. She was a thirty-nine-year-old still just beginning to come into her full powers.
But there was no doubt about it; the KKK had struck again: Eugene Thomas, Collie Leroy Wilkins Jr., William O. Eaton, and Gary Thomas Rowe were caught and arrested.
The men were acquitted by a local jury (of course), but then the United States government tried the men for violating the civil rights of Mrs. Liuzzo. President Johnson was himself a southerner if one considered Texas southern, but his sensibilities were offended. This time, the alleged murderers would not go free. Not even in Selma.
Thomas and Wilkins were sentenced to ten years. Eaton died before his sentencing. And Gary Thomas Rowe received immunity and went into the witness protection program. Surprisingly, Rowe was an undercover FBI informant and testified for the prosecution.
Rowe was no hero; he appeared to have enthusiastically participated in more than a few Klan activities. He did say too that the FBI was aware of these activities and approved his crimes against Black people. He eventually died in 1998 after using several identities…
Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Reverend James Reeb, and Mrs. Viola Gregg Liuzzo all paid the ultimate price…so that Black people could vote.
This is how important a vote is…
Three men attacked the three ministers and killed the Reverend James Reeb. Three men (if one discounts the FBI informant) killed Viola Gregg Liuzzo.
Does evil come in threes?
As a result of the awakening of the American people to the injustice and immorality of preventing Black people from voting, and the cruel treatment that they suffered, particularly in the South, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965.
Racial discrimination in voting was no longer legally allowed. There were still problems, but the federal government was now involved, and this helped a great deal. Unfortunately, this law has since been butchered by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 2013 decision SHELBY COUNTY, ALABAMA v. HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL, ET AL.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
What a disappointment this must have been for the late John Lewis and all those who were there in 1965, fighting for the right to vote. With this decision, SCOTUS seemed to imply that racism was over. That was a naive supposition, one which could have only been made by someone who has never had their right to vote questioned.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has proven to be “So learned, yet so misinformed.”— **Don Quixote (Man of La Mancha)
Since this decision, polling locations have been withdrawn, particularly in areas with large Black populations throughout the South. That is not an accident. Racism still reigns in the offices of local governments. SCOTUS allowed them to unleash voting suppression efforts and they have obliged.
Thank you, SCOTUS.
We should be making it easier to vote, not harder
These are the thoughts that run through my tired brain when someone tries to tell me that voting doesn’t matter. They throw their vote away by voting for people who aren’t even running, or they don’t vote at all.
If voting means nothing, why are millions of dollars used annually to try to stop it? Why are thousands of Americans (who should know better) employed to prevent fellow Americans from voting?
Johnta Austin is a singer-songwriter, arranger, producer, vocalist, and rapper based in Atlanta, Georgia. He posted this video on Twitter. No one should have to wait eleven hours to vote.
This is how important your vote is…
Let’s make one thing clear. This is no longer necessarily a suppression of voting based on skin color alone. We are seeing suppression by, in some cases, one minority party over a larger one due to contorted gerrymandering. This is undemocratic, and at the least, unethical.
We can do everything that we want to do efficiently and quickly and completely. But when it comes to voting in America, in certain states (you know who and where), all of a sudden we’re clueless. Behind the curve. Dumb. Incompetent.
Some people will do anything to stop you from voting.
But there’s one thing they’re competent at, and it’s making a mashup of required voting needs for their state’s targeted communities.
It’s like they can no longer count.
I wouldn’t dare tell you how to vote. That’s none of my business. However, your vote is the one time you’re equal to the rich and powerful if you aren’t already. It’s one person = one vote.
We must remember that people of strong convictions and bravery such as the Reverend George Lee, Herbert Lee (no relation), Jimmie Lee Jackson, William Lewis Moore, Lamar Smith, Reverend James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and countless others were murdered. They wanted to help people of color to vote. Your vote is more valuable than you know.
And through the years I’ve recognized that there is nothing more patriotic than honoring them for their sacrifice. So when one looks to see how they can contribute to the direction that our country takes, know that you have the power of one. And that power can make a strong difference.
Do not ignore this duty.
*NOTE: Civil Rights Leaders C. T. Vivian and John Lewis worked together as assistants to Martin Luther King, Jr in the SCLC throughout the 60s. Both died on July 17th, 2020. Minister Vivian was 95 years old, and Representative Lewis was 80.
**Man of La Mancha; a musical play, by Dale Wasserman. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Music by Mitch Leigh