Decades later, the quest for justice
by John Fleming
Editor at large
May 13, 2007 | 2326 views |  0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mattie Atkins holds up a sign in the Perry County Courthouse in support of the indictment in the case of the 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Photo: Rob Carr/Associated Press
Mattie Atkins holds up a sign in the Perry County Courthouse in support of the indictment in the case of the 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Photo: Rob Carr/Associated Press
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Wednesday, a grand jury in Marion took two hours to return an indictment in a case that is 42 years old.

James Bonard Fowler, from Geneva, stands accused of murder in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. A trial date has yet to be set.

The prosecution will argue for a conviction, that Fowler had no justifiable reason to shoot Jackson. Fowler's attorney, Montgomery lawyer George Beck, will say that it was self defense or accidental or otherwise justified, the actions of a young state trooper who was following the orders of his superiors.

Many questions, then, will come into play over the next few months. But perhaps the most important question may be lost in the minutia of pre-trial legal maneuvering and grand statements about Alabama's emerging societal maturity.

That question is, simply, why has it taken so long?

That's something Jimmie Lee Jackson's family has asked. It is also a question you will hear when you go to Marion today, a quiet town in the western Black Belt. Ask around there and most people, but not all, will tell you they just want to know the truth. They want to understand what happened 42 years ago when a 26-year-old man was shot by a state trooper. Until recently, no one even knew Fowler's name. They only knew the man who shot Jackson was a trooper and many assumed he was dead.

They want justice, but you get the feeling there is an even stronger yearning for the truth.

So we stand here four decades later about to get to the bottom of it. Was it self defense or was it something else?

It did not have to be this way.

History and common sense speak of why virtually nothing was done on this case so many years ago. The local district attorney in Marion in 1965 did convene a grand jury and promptly “no-billed” the case, meaning he dropped it. The FBI did precious little investigating. At the very least, agents never interviewed Fowler, as he told The Star in 2005.

Those were the times, we say, push it aside and move on to the present with decelerations of “justice delayed is not justice denied,” and the similar.

You can't disagree with that. There is a lot to be said for the recent successful prosecutions of civil rights-era cases. Thank God there was a conclusion of sorts for the men who blew up four school children at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Medgar Evers, Vernon Dehmer, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney, revisiting these heroes and the nightmares that brought them down not only started some mending, but also dispensed sorely needed, albeit delayed, justice.

There is a deeper, further question that some would argue we must penetrate if we Southerners truly believe ourselves to be moving toward a mature society.

Do we dare ask of collective responsibility?

Most of us came after the day, you might say. My elementary school was integrated when I was in fourth grade. We had our ugly moments, but I was not in a position of authority at age 10. Am I off the hook? My parents were progressives, soft on the race issue as some other whites whispered of them. They were the finest people in the world, but were not out in the streets with a bullhorn calling for change, did not join the SCLC, but did vote against George Wallace every chance they got. Do they get a pass?

Good white Southern people did join the good fight, in the most outwardly and dangerous way. They marched, were beaten, spoke out, were firebombed. But there were precious few of them in the Deep South. Most were like my parents, quietly working behind the scenes, sick to their stomach to see what was going on around them.

So put yourself there today and ask, honestly, if you would have had the courage to be a Jon Daniels, shot dead in Hayneville, of Viola Luzzio, shot dead on state Highway 80 outside Montgomery, or James Reebe, beaten to death with a baseball bat in Selma?

Northerners, all of them, these whites who were struck down trying to bring about a better society in Alabama. They were Sheriff Jim Clark's hated white outside agitators.

What brought them to the cause? It was a deep conviction of what was the right thing to do, of course, but could it also have been a courage that stemmed from not being encased in the society, of not being interwoven into the family and community? Courage and clarity, is more like it, a clear view that comes from a vantage point from afar. On the plantation where time doesn't change, the society might seem more or less OK, but off the farm, Jim Crow was clearly morally indefensible.

We are not the first peoples to confront such unpleasantness. The South Africans, despite their incredibly horrid attempts to maintain apartheid, have handled their confrontations with the past mostly with grace since the rise of majority rule. The Truth and Reconciliation Process mended a lot of wounds, succeeded in getting at the truth instead of neglecting it for decades.

She is subtle, but close readings of the great South African writer Nadine Gordimer pulls you into the fold of a collective Afrikaner-think that made the legislation of discrimination possible.

Germany too, continues to ask this question. Bernhard Schlink's 1999 novel, “The Reader,” is an amazingly sparse work that plumbs the depth of the question as it relates to the obvious, the Holocaust. He finds and addresses many demons within the society that made such unspeakable horrors happen, perhaps the greatest of which is ignorance.

And we have our literature; with Atticus Finch as our conscience. He speaks to the moral fiber he knows most of us possess.

Hear him thunder as Harper Lee turns him loose during the closing arguments to the jury: “Now gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality. Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review -- without passion — the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.”

The all-male, all-white jury, of course, convicted Tom Robinson of the rape of a white woman despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, speaks a lot now about “restorative justice,” something she defines as the restoration of civil society. While heaping praise on brave Southern local district attorneys and state prosecutors, she reminds us of the society's slowness to accept the obvious. How else, she reasonably asks, does one explain away the failure of the men from Mississippi, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, to support a resolution apologizing for the U.S. Senate's failure to pass anti-lynching laws?

On the streets of Southern cities today you'll meet plenty of people who will remind you of the need for restorative justice. They will ask, in the case of Bonard Fowler, why is there a need to reopen this old wound? Shouldn't we move forward?

To address that question, is to beg one that David Goodman, the brother of Andrew Goodman who was killed with Schwerner and Cheney asks: Do we now ignore the present? In a generation, do we as a nation look back on this time of continued unjust war as ask of collective responsibility?

It is worth considering today to understand yesterday.
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Decades later, the quest for justice by John Fleming
Editor at large

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