It took the grand jury just two hours to return the indictment in the slaying of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Trooper James Bonard Fowler during a 1965 civil rights protest that turned into a club-swinging melee. The incident was little known as a civil rights-era cold case but had major historical consequences.
District Attorney Michael Jackson said the charge and the identity of the person indicted would not be made public until the indictment is served, which could take a few days.
Fowler, now 72, was the target of the investigation and has said he expected to be indicted. He has said that he fired in self-defense after Jackson grabbed his gun from its holster. Calls to Fowler's home and to his lawyer were not returned Wednesday.
Anniston resident Kristy Thomas, a 26-year-old cousin of Jimmie Lee Jackson, said she was happy about the indictment but also sad for Fowler.
“Yes, I am feeling happy, but I also feel sorry for Mr. Fowler,” she said in a phone interview. “I am sorry for him and us that it has taken this long to dig this up. I'm very glad we are finally moving toward justice, but I do feel sorry for him, he's an old man. I hope he has some kind of remorse.”
The indictment is the latest in a series of civil rights-era cases across the South that have been resurrected for prosecution after lying dormant for decades. In recent years, prosecutors have won convictions in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls and in the 1964 killings of three civil rights volunteers near Philadelphia, Miss.
In light of those cases, and in the wake of an Anniston Star interview with Fowler in 2005 in which he admitted publicly for the first time that he shot Jackson, people in Alabama began to call for a new examination of Jackson's death. Michael Jackson, elected in 2004 as the first black district attorney in Circuit 4, which includes Selma and Marion, said he acted on these calls. Michael Jackson is no relation to Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Some of those who were in Marion on the night of the shooting are dead, as are two FBI agents who originally investigated Jackson's death. Former agent Bob Fry, who supervised those men, told The Star in a phone interview that a report was prepared by his office and sent on to Washington, but that the headquarters office did not ask for any further work to be done on the case.
Fry said he could not recall whether the agents interviewed Fowler. In his 2005 interview with The Star, Fowler said no law enforcement agents had ever interviewed him.
News reporters also were beaten and their cameras were destroyed during the melee in Marion, leaving no pictures of what happened. The district attorney, however, said he had “strong witnesses.”
Willie Martin, 74, who was at the 1965 rally that ended in violence and who appeared before the grand jury, said he was glad to see action taken after 42 years.
“They kept it smothered down. We didn't have nobody to represent us back then,” Martin said.
Fowler was among a contingent of law officers sent to Marion on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. According to witnesses, about 500 people were marching from a church toward the city jail to protest the jailing of a civil rights worker when the street lights went out. Troopers contended the crowd refused orders to disperse. Soon law officers began swinging billy clubs, with marchers fleeing.
A group of protesters ran into Mack's Cafe, pursued by troopers. The cafe operator said 82-year-old Cager Lee was clubbed to the floor along with his daughter, Viola Jackson, whose son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot trying to help them. He died two days later.
The shooting galvanized civil rights activists who had not been getting any national media attention in their efforts to register blacks to vote in Selma, said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “Parting the Waters” and other books about the civil rights movement.
In reaction to the killing, black civil rights demonstrators set out on March 7, 1965, on a march from Selma to Montgomery. They were routed by club-swinging officers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, an attack known as Bloody Sunday.
National news coverage of the attack, including images of terrified marchers being beaten amid clouds of tear gas, made Selma the center of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr., who was not present on Bloody Sunday, arrived to lead a weeklong Selma-to-Montgomery march later in the month.
Those events prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which transformed the political makeup of the South by ending various segregationist practices that prevented blacks from voting.
Fowler was not asked to testify before the grand jury. All of the witnesses who appeared before the panel Wednesday are black, and none witnessed the shooting. But Vera Jenkins Booker, the night supervising nurse at the Selma hospital where Jackson died, said the patient told her what had happened.
“He said, 'I was trying to help my grandfather and my mother and the state trooper shot me.' He didn't give any name,” Booker told reporters after her grand jury appearance.
Anniston Star Editor at Large John Fleming and the Associated Press contributed to this report.