The Death of Jimmie Lee: Maine artist Jonathan Frost chronicles a pivotal moment in civil rights history
by John Fleming
Editor at large
Jan 03, 2010 | 4236 views |  20 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo: Special to The Star
view slideshow (18 images)
Sometimes it takes someone from a distant place to see with clarity the events, causes and struggles that come to define our character. For the rest of us, sometimes, the stuff of our history comes more into focus as time passes.

That's been the story with the civil rights movement. As time has passed, the world, the nation and especially the South have come to see what should have been obvious in the middle of the turmoil of 1965: the unquestionable rightness of the greatest movement for social change in the 20th century.

As our historical record comes into focus, it is becoming painfully obvious that much of it is incomplete.

Dozens of murders, at the very least, remain unresolved and unreported. One is the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion in February, 1965 — a case that has been amply reported in this newspaper, but seems to have lost its bearings in Alabama's judicial system since the indictment of former trooper James Bonard Fowler for murder in the case in 2007.

The historical accounts say it was a clear-cut case of Fowler shooting Jackson unprovoked. Fowler says he shot in self defense.

With a trial in limbo pending yet another appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, we are left somewhere in between, a place unfair to everyone involved.

So we can only imagine what happened, exactly, that night in a café off the square in Marion, an event that triggered the Selma to Montgomery march, a watershed moment in American history.

Jonathan Frost imagines it in paintings.

Here is a modern-day interpreter of Southern civil rights history from Rockland, Maine, peering through the decades to give us a narrative of what many agree went down that cold, dark night.

In a series of 18 oil paintings, Frost presents us with a linear sequence of events: a peaceful night march … state troopers arrive … protesters flee into Mack's Cafe … troopers scuffle with 82-year-old Cager Lee, his daughter and his 26-year-old grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson … Jimmie Lee is shot … Jimmie Lee dies, eight days later, in the hospital …

From his studio in Rockland, Frost spoke of his Ohio upbringing, his remembrances of the mid-'60s and his recent trips South.

In past years, he painted landscapes, figures, images from mythology. With these new paintings, he hopes to make the civil rights movement his body of work.

When Frost was a teen, his mother showed him a newspaper photograph of a group of Southern white men who had been charged with killing a black man.

"The men were grinning and casting self-assured glances among themselves and at the camera," Frost said. "Mom looked at them and spoke of them with disgust and contempt, and with a wounded sense of the wrong they had done and would probably get away with.

"My mother," he said, "had a simple faith that good would prevail. I don't think she realized how close the civil rights movement often was to failing; how deep and deadly were the forces against it; how much risk, sacrifice, preparation, persistence and courage it required."

There was a spark of passion, perhaps a moment of clear-headedness then. But the subject of civil rights came late to Frost on canvas, when he wrote a proposal for a civil rights-themed painting for a New England public building.

"I wasn't awarded the grant," he said, "but I made up my mind to do the project on my own, without financial backing. Then I read Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Laws That Changed America, and I was moved by it. I realized that the eventual triumph of the civil rights movement was far from inevitable."

In the summer of 2008, Frost took part in a civil rights bus tour led by Stetson University law professor Robert Bickel and University of South Florida history professor Raymond Arsenault, the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. That trip brought him, among other places, to Anniston and The Star, where he met Phil Noble, H. Brandt Ayers, Charlie Doster and Ed Wood — and where he learned more of the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Frost has always liked art that tells a story. He has a particular fondness for newspaper comics and comic books.

But he also admires painters like Giotto, Masaccio and Rubens, as well as the "dignity and peaceful balance of Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Corot, Gilbert Stuart, George Caleb Bingham and William Sydney Mount."

Words, an ocean of them, have been dispensed about this case, and still a trial date has not been set and we are no closer to the truth, or as close to it as a jury trial will allow.

Given the strength and vividness of his images, maybe a Yankee painter can prod us in the right direction.

The Death of Jimmie Lee Jackson

Jonathan Frost's series of 19 paintings — still a work in progress — has been displayed at his gallery in Maine. They are also displayed online, in a format that allows viewers to scroll through the paintings in order, so that the story unfolds as it happened. Go to, click on "painting," then click on "Civil Rights project."
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