Alabama to Revisit Civil-Rights Era Killing

An Alabama grand jury has indicted James Bonard Fowler, a former police officer, for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Vietnam veteran, during a civil rights protest 42 years ago. Lee's death sparked a march that led to the "bloody Sunday" beatings of civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala.

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An Alabama jury has issued new indictments in the 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson's death led to the march on Selma, best known for its own violent ending on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. While the march was said to have influenced the final passage of the Voting Rights Act, there had been little investigation into the killing that started it all.

NPR's Audie Cornish has more from Perry County, Alabama.

AUDIE CORNISH: Jackson was killed on February 18th, 1965 during a protest that started out as an evening candlelight vigil. The demonstration drew a few hundred people, who ran up against a wall of state troopers in the downtown area of Marion. Reportedly, the streetlights cut out, the crowd scattered, news photographers saw their lenses blackened by spray paint.

Jackson and his mother fled to a nearby cafe, and it was there that they met up with Officer James Bonard Fowler, who shot Jackson. Jackson's death so outraged the community that it drew national movement leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr., to his funeral.

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Leader): He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician from governors on down who have fed his constituents a stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.

CORNISH: Fowler has always maintained that he has fired on Jackson in self-defense, but new charges brought by district attorney Michael Jackson - no relation to the victim - indicate otherwise.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (District Attorney): It just never would have been a really thorough investigation. Things were a lot different back in the '60s. And even though you see it has some old prejudices and biases and fear, you still -things are still a lot better than they were today to conduct an investigation.

CORNISH: But D.A. Jackson is facing a defense attorney who understands civil rights era cases particularly well. Fowler's defense attorney George Beck was on the legal team that first sought new indictments in the 1963 Birmingham church bombings that killed four young girls. Now in private practice, Beck is taking on Fowler's case because he says justice is a two-way street.

Mr. GEORGE BECK (Fowler's Defense Attorney): I think that we have to be real careful in discriminating between those acts of intentional violence - I don't want to sniper rifle or something like this - as opposed to the trooper who's trying to protect to public, who may be trying to act on orders of his supervisor. And I just don't think that every civil rights injury and killing means that something was done illegally.

CORNISH: Beck says the truth of what happened will come out at trial. And that is what the Jackson family wants as well.

Ms. CORDELIA HEARD BILLINGSLEY (Jimmie Lee Jackson's daughter): A lot of people have been coming to me, telling me bits and pieces of how it was and whatever. And now I can find out exactly what really happened that night.

CORNISH: Cordelia Heard Billingsley was only four when her father was killed. And she says she doesn't know what to tell her own grandchildren when they ask about the man who killed their great grandfather. She says, growing up, she often wished for a dad instead of a civil rights martyr.

CORNISH: You know, and I feel like, if my father was living, a lot of things could be different in my life. You know? So, I mean, he took a lot from me - my father. You know, I think about it often.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, James Bonard Fowler is set to return to Marion to turn himself in. His attorney says, at 73, Fowler is in fair health to stand trial. But, Beck says, he will consider requesting a change of venue.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Marion, Alabama.

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