Civil Rights Era slaying witness still backs account
by John Fleming
Editor at large
Mar 30, 2007 | 3781 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Robert C. Andrews, a former Alabama state trooper and one of the last living witnesses to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion at the height of the Civil Rights movement, said he sticks to the account he gave just after the incident 43 years ago.

“I stand by what I wrote in my statement,” said Andrews of his affidavit that says a fellow trooper shot Jackson after Jackson tried to take that trooper’s revolver.

Jackson’s killing on Feb. 18, 1965, by state trooper James Bonard Fowler of Geneva is widely considered to have been the catalyst for the Selma to Montgomery March, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights movement that helped bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Fowler, in an interview with The Star in February 2005, admitted publicly for the first time to killing Jackson, but insisted he shot Jackson in self-defense.

Soon after that interview, the leadership of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus called on state and federal authorities to investigate and prosecute Fowler for the shooting. Attorney General Troy King and Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson’s offices announced they were reviewing the case.

What happened

The 1965 incident took place inside a restaurant called Mack’s Café near the town square in Marion. State troopers had been dispatched to the area because a nighttime march had been planned by local civil rights leaders. During the march, historians and witnesses say, local law-enforcement officers, troopers and trouble-makers started beating the marchers.

In the ensuing chaos, some people sought refuge inside Mack’s Café. They were followed there by troopers, including Fowler and Andrews.

A number of historical accounts of the shooting say that Jackson was shot while trying to protect his mother from being beating by the troopers.

Andrews’ statement, which is similar to Fowler’s, says in part: “One of the Negros hit Corporal Fowler on the head with a bottle, and at the same time appeared to try and get his revolver. Corporal Fowler then threw up his arms and shoved the Negro backward, and the Negro again advanced toward Corporal Fowler, he drew his revolver and fired. Corporal Fowler shouted for someone to get a doctor, that someone had been shot.”

A number of historical accounts, including Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch, paint a different picture of that night. In his book, Branch — referring to Cager Lee, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather, and Viola Jackson, his mother — writes: “The café owner saw troopers attack Cager Lee again in the kitchen. For trying to pull them off, Viola Jackson was beaten to the floor. Her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, lunged to protect her. One trooper threw him against a cigarette machine, another shot him twice in the stomach, and then they cudgeled him back outside toward the bus station, where he collapsed.”

Although he refused to elaborate on “anything having to do with Marion,” Andrews, 73, did make it clear that no law-enforcement agency has ever spoken to him about the case.

Looking for the truth

Fowler, in his 2005 interview with The Star, also said no law-enforcement officials had ever spoken to him about the case.

Andrews added that Montgomery attorney George Beck, who has been retained by Fowler, has not contacted him.

“You are the only person who has ever tried to talk to me about this,” Andrews said to this reporter. Then he added, “If you are looking for the truth, all you got to do is read that statement I made in 1965. That’s all the truth there is.”

After the 26-year-old Jackson was shot, he was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma where he died a few days later.

Andrews believes that could have been avoided.

“That young man should not have died,” Andrews said. “He died of peritonitis, an infection. That doctor didn’t know what he was doing. Now you tell me, if he would have gotten the same kind of care that George Wallace got after he got shot, do you think he would have died? I don’t,” he said referring to an assassination attempt on Wallace in 1972.

Historical accounts of the events surrounding the shooting of Jackson suggest a number of troopers, perhaps as many as 10, entered Mack’s Café just prior to the shooting.

No eyewitnesses

Andrews strongly disputes this, saying only he and Fowler and two other troopers were present.

One of the troopers present, B.J. Hoots, died a few years ago, according to the Alabama Department of Vital Statistics. A number of people in Marion were in or around Mack’s Café the night of the shooting, and dispute both troopers’ accounts of what happened the night Jackson was killed. But so far, no eyewitness other than the troopers have been found, according to Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson.

“If I had an eyewitness, I would be taking this before a grand jury right now,” Jackson said from his office in Selma.

Andrews, who made it to the rank of captain in the state troopers, spoke at length in the wide-ranging interview about everything from politics to his friendship with Anniston’s Norwood Hodges.

He worked, he said, for a number of years with former Gov. Albert Brewer, for example, and developed a strong admiration of him.

He talked of Brewer’s contribution to the state, and of how George Wallace sullied its image.

“Albert Brewer wanted to make Alabama a better place for its people,” he said while drinking coffee in a neighborhood McDonalds near his home in Wetumpka. “He could have been our progressive governor,” he said of the staunchly intergrationalist Brewer. “Instead we got George Wallace.

“Listen here, my youngest boy went to Harvard,” he said. “From the minute he got there, people gave him a hard time because he was from Alabama. Now that was Wallace’s fault.”
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Civil Rights Era slaying witness still backs account by John Fleming
Editor at large

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