Forty years ago, the incident that led to the Selma to Montgomery march began as a confrontation between Civil Rights workers and law enforcement officers in the small Alabama town of Marion. By the end of the night, a State Trooper had shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, who died a few days later. Speaking on the record for the first time, the former trooper, while showing scant remorse in describing the events of Feb. 18, 1965, says he doesn’t fear the possibility of prosecution.
MARION — In 1965, there was nothing quite so dangerous as a nighttime protest in the Alabama Black Belt. Violence against Civil Rights workers, marchers, peaceful protesters, could flare at anytime in broad daylight. Darkness that year, however, gave cover to hatred and deepened anger.
These were all facts that the 500 or so people filing from the sanctuary of Zion United Methodist Church on the winter night of Feb. 18, 1965, were painfully aware of. Yet they felt they had no choice but to walk into that cold night air and turn toward the city jail half a block away. Inside, locked behind bars, was a young Civil Rights worker, the latest of several hundred people arrested. They planned simply to sing freedom songs to protest his incarceration. But between them and the jail stood a wall of city police officers, sheriff’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers.
As the mass came to a stop before the law enforcement officers, someone switched off the streetlights. In the darkness, came screams and the muffled cracks of billy clubs hitting people. Reporters close in to the town’s square could make out men in uniform first setting upon the peaceful protesters and then chasing them as they fled in all directions. They also saw other white men dressed in casual clothes attacking anyone in their path, Movement activists, peaceful protesters, bystanders and journalists.
A few minutes into the confusion, perhaps 10 Troopers chased a group of protesters into a place called Mack’s Café just off Marion’s city square and directly behind Zion. From that point, nearly all historical accounts and press reports at the time agree the following happened:
As the Troopers entered the café they immediately started overturning tables and hitting customers and marchers alike. In the melee, they clubbed 82-year-old Cager Lee to the floor and his daughter Viola Jackson when she rushed to his aid. When her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to help his mother he was shot in the stomach by a state Trooper.
Jackson was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in nearby Selma, where for days he hovered between life and death, fighting off a growing infection as a result of the gunshot wound. In the throes of his struggle to live, the head of the Alabama State Troopers, Col. Al Lingo (a man often compared in his viciousness toward the Civil Rights Movement to Birmingham’s Bull Connor) served Jackson with an arrest warrant and the Alabama state Senate formally denounced charges of dereliction by Lingo’s Troopers in Marion.
He died a few days later, on Feb. 26.
The killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson was pivotal in the struggle for Civil Rights. The injustices perpetuated on blacks in 1960s Alabama were countless, but when this happened — when an unarmed black man was shot down by one of George Wallace’s officials sworn to protect the people — Movement leaders as well as the rank and file and the blacks of Marion were outraged.
This, more than any other event provided a catalyst for the Selma to Montgomery march that came together only a few days after Jackson died. On that day, March 7, or Bloody Sunday as it would become known, events would quickly unfold on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. But unlike the darkness that enshrouded Marion, the carnage on the bridge across the Alabama River played out in broad daylight. The nation and the world would be witness to the senseless beatings and come to understand how low George Wallace and his allies would stoop to protect a bankrupt ideology. It proved to be a moment when the moral authority of Martin Luther King and the essential rightness of the Civil Rights Movement were solidified in the nation’s psyche.
And it all came about in just this way because of a shooting in a café.
“There's no doubt that the initial idea for a march to Montgomery emerged in the immediate wake of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death,” said Dr. David Garrow, professor of law at Emory University and the author of a number of books on the Civil Right era including “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize. “The idea of a procession to Montgomery to confront Gov. Wallace in person with the movement’s demands for equality was something that indeed first was born in Marion soon after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s shooting.”
If you go to Marion today, you’ll find people even more direct about the importance of Jimmie Lee Jackson and his death.
“Without Jimmie Lee Jackson there would not have been a Selma March,” said Elijah Rollins, owner of Lee and Rollins Funeral Home in Marion, an establishment that sits atop the spot that Mack’s Café once occupied.
“This place here,” said Deputy Sheriff Carlton Hogue, a cousin of Jimmie Lee Jackson, “is where it all started. It was because of Jimmie Lee that it all happened. This is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Albert Turner Jr., son of the Civil Rights leader, simply says that, “black people all across America enjoy freedom because of Jimmie Lee. “Marion,” he says, “lit the fire.”
These days in Marion there is not only a feeling of justice denied, there is a hunger simply to know the truth. Who, after all, was the Trooper that shot Jackson and why has he never been questioned, brought before the public, made known to them? Jackson may have been made a martyr for the Civil Rights Movement, but his death also stung the black community in Marion for other reasons, then and now. He was, in short, well thought of and well respected. At 26, he was the youngest deacon in his Baptist church, an employee at the Perry County Hospital and being a former U.S. soldier, he seemed to have the qualities not only to help in the Movement (he had tried unsuccessfully to register to vote five times) but to pull the community along in the future. Jimmie Lee had the makings of a leader himself.
So, a lot is known about Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion and elsewhere. Everyone in town knows his story. A plaque bearing his likeness and an inscription sits in Elijah Rollins’ parking lot. He is mentioned more than in passing in history books.
That virtually nothing is known about the Trooper can be chalked up to the stifling and poisonous atmosphere of George Wallace’s segregation-era Alabama. This was a time when all-white juries routinely acquitted whites for blatant crimes against blacks, when the governor and other state officials frequently referred to King and other Movement leaders as agents of the Communist party, when local and state law enforcement often stood back while Klansmen and trouble-makers beat and harassed peaceful protesters. The chances of law enforcement in Alabama not closing ranks around one of their own was non-existent in 1965. In this case, the Trooper went right back to work and continued on the force until he left on his own in 1968.
The night Jackson was shot, Martin Luther King wired President Johnson’s Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenback, with this message: “This situation can only encourage chaos and savagery in the name of law enforcement unless dealt with immediately.” Katzenback wrote back right away, assuring King that the Justice Department had already launched an investigation into the killing.
Forty years later, still no Justice Department official, including members of the FBI, have ever questioned the trooper about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Nor has anyone else.
When a local grand jury declined to indict the trooper in September of 1965, prosecutors also declined to reveal his identity, save the mention of his surname: Fowler.
James Bonard Fowler is a man given to frankness and simplistic statements. Conversations with him tend toward the folksy. He mingles odd yarns from his native rural south Alabama with a sprinkling of short, declarative sentences. He’ll mangle grammar now and then, hurl a curse word at some distant persona and ask abrasively for whatever alcoholic beverage might be available. His is a sort of controlled rudeness and overbearing, tools he seems to want to use to convince the listener he fits the seldom-used definition of the word Mean: destitute of moral dignity or elevation; ignoble, small-minded.
All of this, however, is a façade belying an enormous complexity and intelligence. Talk to him long and hard and you begin to see bolts of brilliance punching through his 70-year-old redneck manner. Bonard Fowler, you might say, hides his intelligence well.
That night at Mack’s Café, Fowler said, “I don’t remember how many times I pulled the trigger, but I think I just pulled it once, but I might have pulled it three times. I don’t remember. I didn’t know his name at the time, but his name was Jimmie Lee Jackson. He weren’t dead. He didn’t die that night. But I heard about a month later that he died.”
Zion United Methodist anchors one corner of Marion’s town square. It sits there, old, proud and tired looking, reaching up toward the heavens, but also seeming to angle ever so slightly over to the courthouse across the way on the common. Any given weekday will find the modest brick building mostly quiet just like the streets about it that rumble intermittently with the spotty activity of the lethargic economy of Alabama’s Black Belt.
In February 1965, here and throughout Alabama’s midsection, quiet was not the case. Nearby Selma with a population of about 50 percent black, was the epicenter of the Civil Rights struggle at the time and was way beyond tense. That was thanks, in large part, to Dallas County’s fire-headed sheriff, Jim Clark, and the blatantly unconstitutional court orders of state Circuit Judge James Hare — such as banning public assemblies of three people or more.
For months, one of King’s most able lieutenants, Rev. C.T. Vivian, a long time Movement worker and a veteran of the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s, had been in Selma to help organize voter registration drives. He was a mesmerizing speaker, charming, young and motivated. And he was, with the help of a core of dedicated Selma blacks, making progress.
Fear was thick in Selma with nearly daily arrests being made in early 1965. The situation grew even more tense when in mid-February Sheriff Clark had a couple of high profile encounters with protesters, including one where he socked Vivian in the face on the courthouse steps and had his deputies haul him off to jail for having the audacity to make a speech about democracy.
Protests, marches and sit-ins were also beginning to spread throughout the area, including in next door Perry County and its county seat of a little more than 3,000, Marion.
Efforts in Marion had picked up momentum in early February under the local black leadership of Albert Turner and James Orange, a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who had been dispatched from Birmingham by King.
At first, local law enforcement, under the leadership of Police Chief T.O. Harris, held back. But soon Harris’ men arrested a group of blacks trying to desegregate a restaurant. In response, some 400 students set out to protest. They were quickly arrested for their action and on the following day 200 more students were taken into custody when they marched. A few days later on Feb. 18, with a full-scale boycott of the black schools and local businesses underway, the police arrested James Orange charging him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
At this point, Albert Turner felt something had to be done, that a statement of some sort had to be made. So he managed, eventually, to convince a reluctant C.T. Vivian — who had just gotten out of Sheriff Clark’s jail – to come to Marion for a night time sermon at Zion.
After speaking to the packed church, Vivian slipped out the back door to a waiting car and sped back to Selma. It was then that the congregation, led by Turner and another local leader, Rev. James Dobynes, started leaving the church two-abreast to march down the block to sing for Orange’s release.
After a couple of songs, the plan was for the group to break up and walk home. But it was, as everyone knew, an extremely dangerous endeavor. Nighttime marches were almost unheard of in the Deep South during the period. The chance of violence was very high. Night gave cover for anyone itching for a fight.
Word had obviously gotten out that trouble was brewing. Perhaps as many as 50 Troopers were on hand to assist Chief Harris. Even Sheriff Clark showed up to help out along with a growing mob of angry whites that were milling around. The press was there as well, including NBC’s News’ Richard Valeriani, The New York Times’ John Herbers and a couple of UPI photographers.
A few moments after Chief Harris yelled over his bullhorn for the crowd to disperse, Dobynes knelt in prayer and was promptly whacked over the head by a Trooper and drug off toward the jail house.
It was then that the lights went out, the violence began and terrified protesters scattered. As Troopers and police took off after the fleeing marchers, a mob lit into the reporters. Valeriani suffered a serious head wound and the photographers and film crews had their cameras destroyed and lenses sprayed with black paint. Not a single photograph survived.
Trooper Bonard Fowler has never told the story of Marion before. But it didn’t take long for him to recall that night in detail.
He had, he said, arrived after dark from Montgomery with other Troopers. It was, maybe, 9-9:30 p.m., he thinks. When he reached the town square, he says, there was already widespread chaos, including looting, a charge that Marion’s blacks strongly deny. It was during a lull in the chaos that Al Lingo dispatched Fowler and a few other Troopers to Mack’s, a place he referred to as a “juke joint,” where there were reports of people throwing bottles at passing cars.
“Al Lingo told me and about 10 more, ‘y’all go down there and put a stop to that.’ He didn’t tell us to arrest nobody. He said ‘you tell them to close it up. There’s a curfew on.’ So we went down there.”
Fowler says that immediately people started throwing bottles and bricks from the upper story of Mack’s down on the Troopers standing in the street.
“We headed up the stairs. I might have been the first one. I don’t know,” he said. “We went inside, the juke box was blaring and it was pretty crowded. We told them that this has got to stop.” Then, he says there, “might have been a few billy clubs swung. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a state Trooper and I saw an elderly black lady. She hit him upside the head with an old timey coke bottle. There were several people on this state Trooper. They were men and women on him, clinging to him, swinging at him. I think one state Trooper was down. I was going to their assistance when I realized someone was pulling my pistol out of my holster. And the pistol was out of my holster and I reached down and grabbed it around the cylinder and he had the handle of the pistol and I had the pistol and at that time I was very strong and I remember swinging him around with my elbows and arms right like that, and he was right there, and my hand was on the trigger then and I pulled the trigger.”
It is fairly consistent with an affidavit he wrote the night of the shooting 40 years ago.
Two other Troopers also wrote affidavits that night.
One, written by Trooper Cpl. B.J. Hoots is quite similar. Another, written by a Cpl. R.C. Andrews, tells a slightly different version.
“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,” Andrews wrote. “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.”
In his book, “Pillar of Fire,” Taylor Branch 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.”
Normareen Shaw was inside Mack’s that night. She was the manager at the time. And her 69-year-old mind is quite sure it was nothing like the way Bonard Fowler described it.
“I was in the kitchen,” she said, “when I started hearing sticks whacking and people hollering. I said to them in the uniforms, ‘y’all ought to be ashamed of yourselves. These folks not doing anything. And they [the Troopers] paused for a second, everyone did. Then these three other Troopers came in and it all started again.”
“I didn’t see no bottle flying, nothing like that.”
When the gun went off, she says she was trying to get out the back door of the café, along with some others including Emma Jean Jackson, Jimmie’s sister. When she turned around, she said she saw, “some smoke rising up over by the cigarette machine by the window.”
Afterward Shaw said that Troopers took her up to the city jail, hitting her with billy clubs on the left shoulder and upper and lower arm during the short walk.
Elijah Rollins, the funeral home director, said he was upstairs that night.
“I can tell you one thing,” said Rollins. “There were no bottles or rocks thrown at anyone that night. I was upstairs in Mack’s that night. I would know. When I heard the ruckus downstairs I came down to see what was going on and that is when I realized someone had been shot.”
After Jackson died in Selma on Feb. 26, some mourners made their way to Cager Lee’s house, Jackson’s grandfather. Among those paying respects that day were a couple of towering figures of the Movement, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel, who had been working in the trenches in the Black Belt for some time.
The mood was heavy and heartbreaking, yet full of resolve. In “Pillar of Fire,” Branch writes that Bevel mustered the strength to ask Cager Lee if he was prepared to march again. The old man, although still bandaged from the beating at Mack’s replied with an “Oh, yeah.”
That, apparently, got to Bevel, one of the most courageous leaders of the Movement. He left Cager Lee’s shack, Branch tells us, dissolving into tears. A short time later he turned to Lafayette and asked him if he would walk to Montgomery with him.
That night at Brown Chapel in Selma, Bevel went back to the idea of a march on Montgomery. Again Branch says he reached for the Bible and eventually turned to Esther 4:8 where Esther is warned of an order to destroy the Jews and is charged by Mordecai to seek out the king “to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people.”
The king, Bevel was making clear, was George Wallace.
Branch writes that he told the congregation that, “I must go see the king,” and later told them, “be prepared to walk to Montgomery, be prepared to sleep on the highway!”
For Fowler, the killing was simply a question of self-defense. Directly, forcefully and simply put, he had to protect himself. Jackson was going for his gun so he shot him.
“Jimmie Lee Jackson was not murdered,” he says. “He was trying to kill me and I have no doubt in my mind that, under the emotional situation at the time, that if he would have gotten complete control of my pistol that he would have killed me or shot me. That’s why my conscience is clear. But on TV on documentaries you watch, they say that Jimmie Lee was murdered by an Alabama state Trooper.”
And this is the point he wants to make, the reason he wants to talk. Fowler wants his side of the story to be told and does not fear indictment.
“I don’t think legally I could get convicted for murder now no matter how much politics they got ‘cause after 40 years they ain’t no telling how many people is dead,” he says.
It is a bristling kind of confidence when you consider events of the last few years.
In early January, Mississippi authorities arrested a 79-year-old preacher named Edgar Ray Killen who, investigators say, helped organize the murders of Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney in Philadelphia, Miss. in June of 1964. Other arrests, Mississippi law enforcement officials say, will follow.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was murdered in August 1955 in Money, Miss. for whistling at a white woman. His two killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but admitted a short time later in a national magazine article that they had indeed killed Till. Now the Justice Department is exploring reopening the case, looking at the possibility that others were involved in his killing.
Byron De La Beckwith assassinated Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary, in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss. home, in 1963. Mississippi prosecutors convicted him of the murder 31 years later in 1994 and sent him to jail for the rest of his life.
In the last year, Mississippi has started exploring the possibility of reopening the murders of Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney in Philadelphia, Miss. in June of 1964.
Four little girls died when a bomb went off outside their Sunday school class in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. In 1977 Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley managed to convict Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss of four counts of murder. In 2001, U.S. Attorney Doug Jones won a conviction against Thomas Blanton in the same case. The following year he successfully prosecuted the last surviving suspect in the bombing, Bobby Frank Cherry.
Cherry’s conviction was based in part on the testimony of his granddaughter, who calmly told the court her granddaddy had told her that, “he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham.”
When the verdict came in, relatives of the slain girls were listening in the rear of the courtroom.
When the trial was over, 80-year-old Fred Shuttlesworth, a stalwart of the Movement and spiritual leader at Sixteenth Street at the time of the bombing, told the press that “justice will shine for black and white people now.”
As for the man who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, Elijah Rollins simply wants to see him in a courtroom.
“That shooting, he said, “was by no stretch of the imagination self-defense. Jimmie Lee Jackson was not that kind of person Jimmie Lee wouldn’t harm a flea.”
What Emma Jean Jackson, Jimmie Lee’s sister who was 16 at the time of the shooting, wants to know is very simple.
“Why?” She asked from her office in the nearby town of Eutaw. “All I want to ask him is, why. That’s all. Well, he says it was self defense then I still want to know why. Did he really have to go to that extreme? Jimmie Lee didn’t have a gun.
For Emma Jean Jackson and Normareen Shaw it has been a frustrating ordeal. In all these years they have never been asked to testify. Shaw was asked to come to the courthouse when the Perry County grand jury was convened but was never asked to testify. She traveled to Montgomery as well where she says a federal grand jury was meeting but again was never given the opportunity to testify. No criminal investigator with the state or the federal government has ever spoken to her.
But what she wants is really very simple.
“If I could talk to that man the only thing I would want to do is ask him why? Why did he even come into the café that night? There wasn’t even any call for them to be in there. Those people were not even causing any trouble,” she said.
Willie May Avery works in the voters’ registrars’ office at the Perry County Courthouse. She’s come a long way considering that in 1965 she had been denied the right to vote at this very office so many times she has forgotten. Leading up to February 1965 she had been a leader in the movement and heard Vivian’s sermon the night Jimmie Lee was killed.
“That Trooper maliciously shot Jimmie Lee,” she said during a break from her duties at the registrar’s office. “This was a non-violent meeting. They had no right to use force like that. I wish this could come to trial. I would be delighted.”
Pausing a moment to glance around the tiny office, she said, “you know, it took a long time for the Birmingham Church bombing to come around. But it did. I’ve been asking the Lord to bring this man to justice.”
As to the past and present, justice and truth, as far as Bonard Fowler is concerned, self-defense pretty much makes it the end of the story. His conscience, he says, is clear. Simply put.
Simplified too, are the defenses he throws up for all of his actions and those of the other Troopers during the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. He and his colleagues were following orders of one kind or another at one time or another.
He rocks back a little on his slightly rotund figure as he explains this, steadying his recently operated on leg – the result of an old Army injury. Then he sets a steady stare at his questioner before saying, ”I would have never went to that café, that juke, whatever you want to call it, if I would not have been dispatched.”
Being dispatched to Mack’s, standing at the foot of the Pettus Bridge, arresting people for wanting to participate in the democratic process, these were orders sent down from on high, from Al Lingo and Gov. Wallace himself.
They were orders, of course, that resulted in injuries to a good many innocent people. On the night Jackson was killed at Mack’s Café at least 10 people went to the hospital with serious wounds. Amzie Luckey, for example, says that state Troopers managed to draw blood from his scalp with billy clubs despite the fact he had a sizeable afro at the time, something he says that should have cushioned the blows. Others injured less seriously were piled into the city jail along side James Orange, nursing their wounds.
People like Annie B. Heard were not part of the march. She was standing on the opposite side of the town square.
“There were five or six of us standing near that fire plug at the corner,” she said. “When it all started, people were running everywhere and the Troopers were swinging at people. I found an unlocked car and went into the back seat of it and lay on the floor in the back and locked the doors.”
On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when the Troopers famously beat up marchers on the Pettus Bridge, Fowler was there too when 56 people were hospitalized from beatings dispensed by Al Lingo’s Troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies and members of his posse. He says he didn’t hit a soul, that he never carried a billy club, and since he wasn’t wearing a mask that day, the tear gas incapacitated him as much as it did the marchers. But he doesn’t say the actions of his colleagues were wrong. He’s not sorry about Selma or Marion, or Annie B. Heard or Amzie Luckey. He isn’t here to apologize for anything. George Wallace might have sought forgiveness, a broken grieving little man in a wheelchair practically oozing remorse. Not Bonard Fowler because he feels he has done no wrong.
Back in the days of the Civil Rights Movement he was a law man sworn to do his duty.
“It was my job; I was doing what I was told to do. I didn’t get involved in the right or wrong of it,” he says. But nowadays he does get involved in the right and wrong. So, when you really get to the why of it all with him, the simplicity and blind loyalty begin to melt away and bitterness creeps into his voice. That business in Selma and Marion, that was part of George Wallace’s war, a politician’s war, just like Vietnam and the war in Iraq.
Wallace, Nixon and George W. Bush are all a bunch of lying bastards as far as Bonard Fowler is concerned. The pain in Selma, Marion, Saigon and Baghdad are all because of politicians’ thirst for power.
Tugging a camouflaged cap down tighter over his head he spits that, “there’s George Bush sending young boys over there to Iraq to get killed, and for why? And my brother got killed, and for why?”
Here Fowler understandably gets very emotional. In 1968, when his brother Robert was killed in Vietnam, he left the Troopers immediately and within a few short weeks he was in his brother’s old unit.
He went there, he says, to kill as many Vietnamese as he possibly could. But over time, he came to love and respect the people he wanted to kill. Ten years ago, he married a woman from Burma.
“I have a great admiration for the Asian people,” he said looking across the couch to his wife Noie. “Asians are so practical and they make such wise decisions that it seems to me that they have forgotten more about human nature than we will ever learn”
For him the world would be a better place if we could all, as the Buddhists stress, “obliterate greed, selfishness and envy. To reach nirvana,” he says, “you have to do away with all your wants and desires for materialistic gains. When a rich man dies, how much does he take with him?”
In his view, Western society, including religion, is corrupt. It is all, he steams, about personal gain, power and control. Where, he laments, could the love possibly be?
“You got to have love for people, you have to love freely,” he said.
And love is something Westerners, especially whites, lack. So he’s got plenty of lashing out to do against his own people. They, he believes, are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Conniving whites, he spits, “they are the ones you have to worry about. The average black is gonna help me more than the average white.”
And don’t get him started on the modern day law man. “I don’t trust any police department. Police more than anyone else will lie to build their case. I don’t trust nobody in law enforcement.”
He rails against police who beat prisoners, saying that it is unforgivable what Los Angeles police officers did to Rodney King. “There’s no call for that,” he said.
All of this is why Fowler has no patience with anyone wishing to call him a racist. His embrace of the individual — no matter the color, as long as the character is true — goes back a long way.
“I was borne and raised with blacks,” he says. Citing a neighbor from his childhood in rural Geneva County he says, “Ms.Bessie Swear had a crowd of youngins. I slept at her house a million nights.”
As a boy growing up he felt safety and comfort in the bosom of blacks, he insists and trusted his black neighbors more than most whites that he knew. Even today, he’ll tell you that “I don’t feel that I have ever been screwed over by black folks nearly as many times as I have by white folks.”
But the blacks of the Civil Rights Movement, the ones he confronted, they were different, apart from what he had always known. And this was not their fault; it was the fault of outside agitators.
“The blacks we were dealing with then wern’t like the ones we grew up with,” he said. In Selma and Marion and throughout the South, he insists, “the blacks were incited to riot, to loot.” Those were, he says, a different kind of black.
In his mind, the old segregation-era in the South was a much better place for blacks. “They always fared better when they stayed in their place.” And the Civil Rights Movement, he added, well its achievements would have come about anyhow, in time. But, he says, segregation was really a better system, or should have been.
“I think that segregation was good, if it were properly done,” he said. “Now, you got to give equal funds and they got to be handled right. I don’t believe in completely mixing the races. I don’t think that is gonna help anything.”
In today’s world, it is like this, he says, “they don’t want to be called nigger, they don’t wanna be called jigaboos. But they won’t hesitate to call you a honkey, a redneck, a cracker and,” gesturing to his wife, “her a slope head or a slant eye, fucking gook. They won’t hesitate to do that. They won’t hesitate to wear their colors, green, black and red, but they will get mad if you put the Confederate flag on the front of your car. They say to hell with your heritage, your culture. And we have just surrendered to that.”
He despises affirmative action, believes that blacks blame every single problem they have on whites. And, in essence, believes that the nation can’t make a dent in mending race relations, because “this is all about human nature. I think like-kind is going to assemble in the presence of like-kind.”
He pulls out his impression of a backwoods black Southern accent to tell a story of attending EEOC meetings while he was in the Army.
“They would say, ‘well, what going to happen if I’m riding down through Georgia or Alabama, me with a white woman sitting in the car with me and a bunch of rednecks, bunch of crackers see me.’ I would raise my hand and say well hold on a minute, what is going to happen if they see me walking down the street in Harlem? There are places you can’t go as a white man in black communities. Try going to Watts.”
After Marion and the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Fowler went back to his duties as a state Trooper. He was transferred to Birmingham and promoted. He never, he says, got so much as a letter of reprimand.
Life went on. No one from the DA’s office in Perry County contacted him about the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, nor did his superiors at the Department of Public Safety want to know more. U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenback’s men at the Department of Justice also seemed strangely absent.
“They never asked me about Jimmie Lee Jackson,” says Fowler. “I met a couple of [federal] agents, but they never asked me about Jimmie Lee Jackson.”
In the middle of a slightly related tale of the Civil Rights Movement – he arrested the mayor of Millry, Ala., for being he says, “a son of a bitch” — he abruptly stopped to return to the question of the Justice Department.
After Marion and the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Fowler went back to his duties as a state Trooper. He was transferred to Birmingham and promoted. He never, he says, got so much as a letter of reprimand.
Life went on. No one from the DA's office in Perry County contacted him about the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, nor did his superiors at the Department of Public Safety want to know more. U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenback's men at the Department of Justice also seemed strangely absent.
"They never asked me about Jimmie Lee Jackson," says Fowler. "I met a couple of [federal] agents, but they never asked me about Jimmie Lee Jackson."
In the middle of slightly related tale of the Civil Rights Movement – he arrested the mayor of Milrey, Ala., for being he says a son of a bitch — he abruptly stopped to return to the question of the Justice Department.
Fowler, it turns out, did have an encounter with John Doar (Katzenback's assistant attorney general who had a reputation for knocking on doors and finding out for himself what was going on.)
"I met John Doer," Fowler said. But, it was not related to Jimmie Lee Jackson. It was about another black man he killed near Birmingham in 1966.
Fowler, while on patrol around the town of Alabaster near Birmingham, answered the call of two troopers who had arrested a black man.
"This was a great big feller about 6 foot five. Big feller. He was black as it would be. He had just about whipped both of them Troopers. I handcuffed him and took him on to Alabaster and put him in jail. As I put him in the cell he said 'I'm allowed a phone call ain't I'? So I said I have no objection to that. So I took him into the chief of police's office and let him use the phone. He got in an argument with the telephone operator. He didn't know the number he wanted to call. The chief of police's billy club was laying right up there [on a file cabinet beside the phone]. I finally said hang up the phone, you don't know the number you want to call. He slammed that phone down so hard and before I could think he took that billy club and hit me across the head right here. I pulled my gun and shot him. I shot him three times right here," he said pointing to his heart. "I killed him.
"His name was Johnny Johnson or something; I could never keep him straight from Jimmie Lee Jackson. About a week later on a Saturday night I was patrolling and got a call to come to the office. This guy, John Doar and two FBI agents were there. They never asked me my name, they never asked me nothing. They just wanted me to transport them to the funeral home where the black was.
"John Doer sat in the front seat with me. We went in there and raised the casket and looked down at that black corps. They looked at it, got information from the funeral director, I just stood back. I looked at him too. I didn't say nothing and they didn't say nothing. And that's how I met John Doer."
In fact, the man Fowler killed, according to press reports, was Nathan Johnson., Jr. of Ensley, Ala., on May 8, 1966.
A few weeks later, he said, two FBI agents did come to question him. But Fowler told them he had nothing to say and "they folded up their books and said 'well OK that's it.'"
Skating with him through the broader questions of race today, the Civil Rights Movement then and the character of man and you'll find yourself navigating through unrelenting bigotry mingled tightly with admiration for many who are not his color.
He has a vile hatred for Robert Mugabe, the nearly universally perceived corrupt leader of Zimbabwe who rose to power when the white government stepped down in 1980. But he professes love for Nelson Mandela, calling him the savior of a nation. Colin Powell is a wonderful man, he says, by far the wisest in an administration full of idiots. He's at home with the blacks in his corner of the county, neighbors all of them, good neighbors he would do anything for. It's the ones from outside he can't stand.
And as for the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King? Bonard Fowler could care less.
"I'm on the side of J. Edgar Hoover," he said. "I think he was a con artist. I don't think he's got a snowball's chance in hell of getting into heaven. No more chance than I do. His goal was to screw and fuck over every white woman that he could."
That's some bitter rhetoric for someone like Deputy Carlton Hogue to swallow. For him, a cousin of Jimmie Lee and more than an admirer of Martin Luther King, a shooting 40 years ago in a forgotten café in a forgotten town, it's about justice, it's about history and it's about family.
"There ain't no statute of limitations on murder," he said. "That man needs to be prosecuted just like they did with Cherry up in Birmingham."
For Emma Jean Jackson it boils down to loss and her brother: "We had quite an age spread, so I was just getting to know him," she said. "So I think often about all the years we could have had growing up together. I missed all that. And I miss him."