“Jimmie Lee was just a nice person that’s all.”
This month marks the 49th anniversary of the Civil Rights march in Marion, AL. On February 18, 1965, protestors planned to march from Zion Methodist Church to the Perry County jail, where SCLC member James Orange was imprisoned for running voter registration campaigns in the rural town. Rumors of a jailbreak led Marion officials to call in Alabama State Troopers. When marchers left the church, they were viciously beaten by Marion police and state troopers. This march proved more violent than the one that followed in Selma the next week, but the Marion protest was forgotten by many — no photographs or film evidence of the violence existed to show the drama. Marion native Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten by police while he tried to protect his mother and grandfather. Shot in the stomach by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler, Jackson died from his wounds a week later.
Samford University history students working with the Office of University Historian as part of an ongoing oral history project in Marion, Alabama interviewed Jackson’s second cousin, Emma Peterson, and her husband, Lloyd, who lived in Marion in 1965. These are their recollections of that violent night so long ago.
Lloyd: Jimmie and I was real close. Well, my wife was Jimmie’s cousin so I guess that’s the way we really connected together. That’s where we would communicate … because of the fact that her parents didn’t like me… Jimmie and I was just always together and that’s the way I would get over to see her was through Jimmie.
Emma: Jimmie Lee was just a nice person that’s all. He was a nice, quiet person. It was just him and his sister and his mom and dad. And his dad had got killed about 2 years before then, so Jimmie was the man of the house.
On the night of the march:
Emma: I don’t think he was really involved in [the Civil Rights Movement]. He was just like me—we would just all go to the meetings. . . I wasn’t there at the meeting… at Zion Methodist Church… I was at work… And he wasn’t even at the meeting; he was at the café down there waiting on his mom and… granddaddy. And he was sitting out there waiting on them to come because he really had the flu… He didn’t feel like being in the crowd.
Lloyd: During that time I had an uncle that was principal of Marion Baptist Academy; he had had a stroke so I had been out that night to give him a bath and … then after that I went to the meeting. I pulled up right across from the church and parked. The so-called State Troopers—which they was people from Marion or somewhere just in State Trooper’s suits….they told me, “If you’ve got a home to go to, you’d better go.” At that time I was going to ease around the back, go around to the back of the church to tell them about all these people outside. I started around the back of the church and there’s two men back there. So I had to go.
When they came out of the church, that’s when the head knocking started…They let out and they were going to march down to the jail and have prayer and that’s when they started. Reverend Durbine, he was down on his knees praying and they were steady beating his head up with those clubs. It was rough. Rough. So then I figured it was time to go. Wasn’t no use in staying around. If they hit me, I was going to shoot ‘til I died. That’s right.
Emma: One thing about it was…you didn’t see a light nowhere. When I had gotten off work that night this one girl had told me, “Y’all ain’t got no lights over there. They had done arrived.” I said, “What are you talking about?” So I got in the car and you didn’t see a light nowhere. In the stores, out the stores, in the street, you didn’t see a light nowhere. Completely dark.
Lloyd: That was the general idea. They wanted to turn the lights out where you didn’t know who they were. If they had the lights on, you can see who it is, you know.
Emma: So, they tell me, when they came out of church they came out beating heads. And they [Jimmie Lee’s mother and grandfather] went on down to the café where he was… they beat her, and they beat the granddaddy too. The granddaddy didn’t live too long after then because they beat him all on the head and everywhere with Billy clubs and stuff. [Jimmie Lee] was fighting back, but he couldn’t fight them all, so then he got shot. Then they rushed him to Selma, to Good Samaritan Hospital.
Lloyd: We carried Jimmy Lee’s grandfather and mother to the hospital over in Selma and after that, after they got treated we were going to come back home. They told us we weren’t going to leave out of Selma and nobody was coming in. . . So shortly after that we learned that Jimmy was over at Good Samaritan Hospital; we were going to go over there and see about him, but they wouldn’t let us leave. . . So here I was, I had a wife and kids at home and I couldn’t get back to them. It’s not like today, we didn’t have cell phones and what have you. You’re scared to death. You don’t know what going to happen.
Emma: [Jimmie Lee] stayed down there almost a week. My pastor went down to see him and he said, “Oh, Jimmy’s doing good; he’ll be home in a couple of days,” but that same night he passed. We don’t know what happened to him.
They had his funeral in Selma. . . I think the Civil Rights took over, didn’t they? I think they took his body over. So his mom just went along with it. [Dr. Martin Luther King] did a great job at his speech. He really did. I’ve forgotten what it was all about since it’s been so long, but everything was nice.
Lloyd: I worked because you were going to get fired anyways if you went.
Jackson’s death rocked the Civil Rights community and served as a catalyst for the march from Selma to Montgomery, which began a week later. Marion activist Lucy Foster suggested walking in Jimmie Lee’s honor instead of driving through Selma as planned.
Adapted from Oral History Interviews with Emma and Lloyd Peterson, conducted by Lauren Ziemer and Ben Woodall and Weary Feet, Rested Souls by Townsend Davis