Iwas in Selma, Ala. recently for the commemoration of the 43rd anniversary of the historic 1965 Selma-to- Montgomery march that directly led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As expected, the Who’s Who of Black leadership was there: Cong. John Lew
It was not surprising that so many African American leaders came to the annual event to commemorate March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” when demonstrators were gassed and clubbed as they set out on the march along Highway 80 to the state capital.
More encouraging, last weekend hundreds came from around the country to honor the past and to recommit to the future. As I’ve written in this column before, I was a senior at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. at the time of the march. After watching TV images of John Lewis and others being savagely beaten, carloads of us drove to Montgomery for the final leg of the march.
I remember seeing James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte for the first time and being impressed that such luminaries would come to my home state to lend their support to the struggle. I also remember those whom SCLC President Charles Steele likes to refer to as “scared Negroes.” Many people who are so vocal about civil rights today failed to answer the call of Selma.
Even after protesters were beaten %uFFFD maybe because they were beaten %uFFFD too many Blacks were afraid to show their face in Selma, Montgomery or anywhere in between. The modern civil rights movement provided the test of our time and far too many failed that test. This is also a good time to reflect on a period when Whites were willing to give their life to right a wrong.
During the Selma campaign, Rev. James Reeb, a minister from Boston, was beaten to death on a Selma street by a group of white men. And Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, was shot to death as she drove a group of marchers from Montgomery back to Selma. The real stars of the civil rights movement were not celebrities or even northerners who had traveled south to participate in demonstrations.
Rather, it was common everyday people, then called Negroes or worst, who knew that participating in the movement could cost them their low-paying jobs or their life. Yet, they took that risk. The story of Selma is really the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson. His story should be required reading for any young person growing up in the United States.
Certainly, no Black parent should rear a child without passing along the story of Jackson, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. Jimmie Lee Jackson grew up in Marion, Ala., the hometown of Coretta Scott King. Marion is the county seat of Perry County, one of the soil-rich black belt counties clustered in the southern part of the state.
Like many counties in the region, Blacks were prevented from voting through violence, fear and intimidation. James Orange, a 22-year-old SCLC organizer, had arrived in Marion in early 1965 to help with a Black voter registration project. After he was jailed, 500 B protested by marching from Zion Methodist Church to the county jail. But before they could arrive, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers and local policemen.
In the crowd were Jackson, 26; his mother; and his 82-year-old grandfather. Jackson and his family retreated to a nearby cafΘ when violence erupted, but troopers followed them. State troopers began clubbing Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather, continuing to strike him even after he had been knocked to the floor.
When’s Jackson’s mother tried to intervene, she was also beaten. Jumping to his mother’s rescue, young Jackson was beaten, thrown against a cigarette machine and shot twice in the abdomen. He died eight days later in a Selma hospital. James Fowler, the state trooper who admitted killing Jackson, was not indicted until last year; an all-white grand jury convened shortly after the murder refused to indict him. Fowler is expected to finally go on trial for murder in May or June.
Orange, the jailed SCLC organizer, died last month after as a result of complications from gallbladder surgery. He was 65 years old. Lewis succinctly captured the contributions of Jimmie Lee Jackson in a recent statement.
Lewis observed: “It was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson that provoked the march from Selma to Montgomery. It was his death and his blood that gave us the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
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