At 87, he sits now, easy and quiet, on a couch in the cool of his daughter’s home on a hot day fit for plowing, sipping ice water and speaking of the distant past.
His family is humble, farmers still in their own way, he and his children and grandchildren say. They are now, and they were even then.
Then, is a day in February 1965 when his nephew, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old from Marion was shot dead by an Alabama state trooper during a violence-filled night in that Black Belt town.
And Cager Lee Jr. and his children and grandchildren want to talk about Jimmie Lee Jackson now, after all these years, because today in Selma a special grand jury will convene to consider whether to indict the trooper who shot him, James Bonard Fowler of Geneva.
A number of historical works say Jackson was shot while trying to protect his mother, Viola Jackson, from baton-wielding troopers that night. It’s a version his family stands by.
Fowler, however, told The Star in February 2005 that although he did shoot Jackson during a melee in a restaurant called Mack’s Café, just off the town square, he fired in self-defense as Jackson was trying to take his gun. One of the last surviving troopers who was in the Café with Fowler that evening, R.C. Andrews, told The Star recently that he stands by an affidavit he wrote soon after the shooting, a statement that is similar to Fowler’s.
Cager Lee Jr. was not in Marion that night. He was in the hospital in Birmingham. But his father, Cager Lee Sr., was there and was beaten by troopers along with his sister, Viola.
Cager Lee Jr. did make it to the funeral, an event that he said helped crystallize the civil rights movement.
James Bevel gave a powerful sermon that evening, urging immediate action, Cager Lee Jr. said.
“He was saying we should take Jimmie Lee’s body to Montgomery, to put it on the Capitol steps,” said Lee, a Gadsden resident. “Jimmie Lee’s getting killed had a huge impact on the civil rights movement.”
Historians agree the shooting of Jackson was a crucial yet overlooked moment in the civil rights movement. In the aftermath, movement leaders such as Bevel were so upset that they threatened to take Jackson’s body to the state Capitol to protest oppressive measures by law enforcement. Eventually the plan evolved into the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which helped to build momentum for the Voting Rights Act that President Lyndon Johnson signed in August 1965.
The Jackson case has gone largely ignored since 1965, despite assurances from federal officials at the time that the shooting would be investigated. In his 2005 interview with The Star, Fowler said no law enforcement official had ever talked to him about the case.
Fowler’s lawyer, George Beck of Montgomery, maintains his client’s innocence.
“This is not a complicated case,” Beck told The Star in a phone interview. “This is a clear case of self defense. It was a difficult time for everyone, and you have this young state trooper who was simply doing his job.”
After The Star’s article appeared in 2005, state and local officials announced they would look into reopening the case. Michael Jackson, the district attorney in Selma, announced recently that he would convene a grand jury in the case.
After 43 years, it’s about time, Cager Lee and his family say.
“This is a chance for justice to finally be served,” said B.J. Johniken, Cager Lee’s grandson and a cousin to Jimmie Lee Jackson. “Back then people could get off for that kind of thing. But it’s a new century now,” said the 26-year-old City of Anniston employee.
For Cager’s granddaughter Kristy Thomas, an Anniston resident who works at the incinerator, the convening of the grand jury is something she thought would never happen.
“I used to listen to my pa-pa tell this story when I was a kid,” said Thomas motioning to Cager Lee. “It was clear to me that there was never any attempt to even find who was responsible for this, any effort to try to get to the bottom of it. They thought then, that’s the way things should be, that it was just justified because he was a black man. I certainly never thought we would get to the point of actually doing something about it.”
Joy Lee of Gadsden, a 37-year-old granddaughter of Cager, believes she lives in a better, more inclusive world because of the sacrifices people made during the civil rights movement.
“Jimmie Lee and others enabled me to have a life and friends I have now,” she said. “My best friend is white. Now that’s progress, although we still have a long way to go.”
Her aunt, Kay Johniken, a 49-year-old who works for the Anniston Water Works, agrees, but at the moment has her eye squarely on the events in Selma.
“This [grand jury] should have happened in 1965,” she said. “Alabama was like an island during the civil rights movement. Law enforcement did whatever they wanted and often they were protected by their superiors.”
In recent years, state and federal authorities have reopened a number of cases of civil rights-era killings, including the successful prosecution of two men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. At the end of May, James Seale of Mississippi will go on trial for kidnapping charges. The two men he is accused of kidnapping, 19-year-olds Henry Dee and Charles Moore, were found in 1964 in the Mississippi River, beaten and weighed down by an engine block.
During a lull in the family chatter of a far-away time, Cager Lee excused himself for a trip to the other end of the house for some rest. When he passed from the room, unsteadily, leaning heavily on a cane, daughter Janice Jackson of Gadsden steered the subject to justice.
“This is what I think that grand jury means to me, to us,” she said. “We want Cager to feel that justice was done. For him that shooting was just like it was yesterday. He has to feel that justice was done. It means everything to us.”
A few minutes later, when Cager Lee shuffled back into the room, he said in a loud whisper, “Well, if that trooper gets indicted, then I’ll just say that I feel like he will be getting what is coming to him.”