The Jimmie Lee Jackson Case: Episode 5 NPR White Lies Civil Rights Crime Podcast In Episode 5, we search for the fourth attacker while digging into the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist who was murdered in Alabama just weeks before the Rev. James Reeb. Jackson's killer was brought to justice in 2010. We look at his case for strategies to help solve Reeb's.
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CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:

When the state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson was charged with his murder in 2007, a woman named Mary Cosby Moore was the circuit clerk at the Perry County Courthouse in Marion, 30 miles northwest of Selma.

MARY COSBY MOORE: I think that's where my interest really grew, looking at the case and following the case and then handling all the court documents because, in that case, all the documents have to come through the clerk's office. And the discovery of it was just fascinating.

BRANTLEY: Like so many people in town, Moore had a personal attachment to the case. Even though she was only 7 years old in 1965, her family and Jimmie Lee Jackson's family knew each other well. Her grandfather was close with Jimmie Lee's grandfather, Cager Lee, and their mothers were also friends.

COSBY MOORE: As a matter of fact, Miss Viola was the first person that started my mom and chickens. She gave my mom two chickens at the time (laughter). And my mom had never dealt with chickens before, so she gave her two chickens. And my mom started raising chickens. Of course, we got so attached to the chickens that I don't think any of them ever got on the dinner table. But we did eat the eggs.

BRANTLEY: Marion was like this, smaller than Selma, more familial. Everybody seemed to know everybody, and Jimmie Lee Jackson was one of theirs. And while the voting rights campaign in Marion would often later be lumped in with the broader movement in Selma, Marion had its own local movement.

WALTA MAE KENNIE: I had participated in the movement in Birmingham. I was right down the street from where the fire hoses and the dogs and...

ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:

That's Walta Mae Kennie, who had grown up in Marion but who left for a few years to attend college in Birmingham.

KENNIE: So I came home, and I was unable to register to vote. I registered in Birmingham, but when I got home, I still had no authority to vote here in Marion. They'll put you off, day after day after day, but still, we would go up to the courthouse, to the registrar's. They said, come back the next day. Come back the next day. And then finally, when they did let you come in, they would give you a stack of papers about a half-inch thick, questions to answer. How many pennies in this jar? And you'd have a jar full of pennies. Or they'd ask you something about some dead president, or back in the 1800s or 1500s - besiege us with question after question. And you could not answer them.

GRACE: These so-called literacy tests, which weren't fully banned until 1970, could also include sections that required prospective voters to read aloud, then interpret, then transcribe long passages of legalese from the Alabama Constitution, a notoriously noxious and long-winded document that was crafted in 1901 with the explicit mandate to, quote, "establish white supremacy in this state," end quote. That same constitution, by the way, is still the basic governing document of the state of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERT TURNER: But it became my job - some of us - to try to teach people how to pass the test, even though we couldn't pass ourselves.

GRACE: The local leader of the voting rights movement in Marion was Albert Turner. Like Walta Mae Kennie, Turner was a recent college graduate who was fed up with the lack of racial progress in his hometown. Turner died in the year 2000, but here he is from a filmed interview in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: And I had insisted and I had tried and always thought I was a pretty good student myself, and it was kind of an affront to me that these dummies who was the registrars was saying to me that I couldn't pass a test that they was giving, and they couldn't hardly write their names.

GRACE: By the beginning of 1965, Turner and other local leaders had been trying to register black voters for a few years, but they'd managed to register only 75 people. But as more national voting rights organizations came to Selma in January, some of them began fanning out into neighboring communities, including Marion. And when they did, the energy there changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: The first Monday in February 1965 was our voter registration day, and of course, we called this D-Day. We had intended that we had no longer, no longer that we planned to go through the jive of passing no tests, so we was just going down and have direct action until we got the right to vote. And we stayed in line all day long, until finally, they arrested us, really, and put us in jail.

GRACE: What followed was a wave of mass arrests in the area, with hundreds of demonstrators taken in. The surrounding jails were too small to hold everyone who was arrested, and so many people were sent to Camp Selma, a work camp on the outskirts of town. Walta Mae Kennie was among those who was sent to Camp Selma.

KENNIE: I'd never seen anything like it. It was over a hundred of us in this one big room. They had one toilet and water in a dipper. There were students, old people, people on medication. Some people got sick. We had to clean people up. And that many people cluttered in this one place - it almost get too painful to talk about.

GRACE: Eventually, so many people were arrested they ran out of room, and authorities had to turn everybody loose. It was just too much for the system to handle. But something about these mass arrests changed the tenor of the protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: After that point, we, you know, kind of got madder and madder, whatever you want to say. And finally, this time, it even - we had decided to go around the clock. We was going to demonstrate day and night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: Night marches were rare because they were so dangerous. On a basic logistical level, they were just harder to plan and execute. But also, under the cover of darkness, the crowds of hostile whites who would gather in opposition to the March felt even less inhibited than usual, more likely to lash out in violence.

The marchers in Marion, though, knew the stakes.

KENNIE: Nobody spoke of dying. We left home. We didn't know if we were coming back or not. But you didn't say that. Some people would leave their kids, they would leave their children, and say, if something - if we don't get back, go to grandma's. We got all the important papers stacked right here. So that's how dedicated people were. They never said, well, we're going to die of this. If you don't get back so - you're not really living anyways. You're just existing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: On February 18, Albert Turner called for a night march. Officials in Marion had heard about the plans and radioed for reinforcements. Selma police officers, Dallas County deputies, members of Sheriff Jim Clark's posse, Alabama state troopers, scores of outside law enforcement rolled into Marion.

So did Richard Valeriani, who was covering the Selma campaign as a correspondent for NBC News and got wind of what was happening over in Perry County. Things were relatively quiet in Selma that day, so we drove over and arrived in Marion just before the night march began. This is from an interview he did in 1985.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD VALERIANI: We knew there was going to be trouble right away because local folks came up to us and threatened us, sprayed our cameras with black paint so we couldn't shoot, ordered us to put the cameras down and harassed us. And it was a very tense situation.

BRANTLEY: Turner had called for the march to start after a mass meeting at a church in the center of Marion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: OK, as we went out of the church that night to begin the actual march, we got roughly about a half a block from the door. And the sheriff of the county at that time and several troopers halted us. And, of course, they started whipping people at that point, so all of us tried to get back into the church. The line of demonstrators still was in the door of the church. The demonstration really never did get all the way out of the church.

KENNIE: And we started to turn. They said, go back inside. Go back inside. They're beating people up here. They're beating us up. So we turned and went back around the side of the church. And as we got around to the side of the church, there was people coming with billy clubs and sticks and beating people.

TURNER: The town was surrounded. There was nowhere to go, really. The town - the whole town was surrounded that night by auxiliary police, state troopers, sheriffs and everybody who wanted to come in, really, who felt like beating folk up. Some of us tried to go back in the front door. And some of us just went where we could because as we moved, they also moved. They was whipping us as we went. Billy clubs was broken on people's heads. And I got in the back door of the church, and quite a few other people did. But Jimmie Jackson was not able to make it back in the church. He went down the hill below the church into a small cafe.

BRANTLEY: The place Jimmie Lee Jackson ran into was called Mack's Cafe. On the second floor above it was a bar.

ELIJAH ROLLINS: I was in the club, and I heard noise. And I thought maybe it was the people singing and marching as usual.

BRANTLEY: That's Elijah Rollins. He would be the one who would wind up burying Jimmie Lee Jackson. Today he runs the funeral home in Marion that sits on the very spot where the attack took place.

ROLLINS: So I walked out on the front porch, and I saw that it was something different altogether. It wasn't the march. And other people were screaming and hollering. People's heads were being torn up, beat across the head, wherever they could be hit at, whatever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALERIANI: I guess in the excitement, somebody walked up behind me and hit me with an axe handle, hit me in the head with an axe handle.

BRANTLEY: The NBC correspondent Richard Valeriani.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALERIANI: And then somebody walked up to me - a white man walked up to me, and he said, are you hurt? Do you need a doctor? And I was stunned. And I put my hand - the back of my head. And I pulled it back, and it was full of blood. And I said to him, yeah, I think I do. I'm bleeding. And then he thrust his face right up against mine. He said, well, we don't have doctors for people like you.

GRACE: Jimmie Lee Jackson's 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee, was also hit with a billy club in the back of the head. He stumbled from the church down into Mack's Cafe, looking for Jimmie, who could take him to the hospital. But as they tried to leave the cafe, state troopers came through the door and wouldn't let them leave. Jimmie tried to press through them with his grandfather, but they threw Jimmie down and started beating him. When Jimmie's mother tried to get the men off her son, they knocked her back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TURNER: And then they took Jimmie and pinned him against the walls of the building. And at close range, they shot him in the side - just took the pistol and put it in his side and shot him. After shooting him, then they ran him out of the door of the cafe, out of the front door of the cafe. And as he run out the door, the remaining troopers or some of the remaining troopers were lined up down the sidewalk back toward the church. And as he ran down, they simply kept hitting him as he kept running through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VERA BOOKER: I always kept a brain book as I called it - what you did, who'd you see, the time, and everything that you've done - which, really, was a book that they'd given us with every day of the year and somewhere to write. But this one is 2/18/65. That's the date this was made in a composition book. This is original.

GRACE: Vera Booker was a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma. You heard from her in an earlier episode. Booker had just clocked in at 11 p.m. for the night shift on February 18. Here's what she wrote in her brain book for that day.

BOOKER: A call came in. It said that the young man had been shot in Marion and was on their way to the Good Samaritan. And his name - Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was 26 years old, OK? His address was route 3, box 37, Marion, Ala. That was way before zip codes. And when he came in, brought him in. And he was all bent over, poor little thing. Gunshot wound of abdomen, that's his complaint. Also, a laceration on back of head, approximately two inches long. That's what I put down because that's what I saw.

All right, how it happened - this is it. Left mass meeting at church in Marion, Ala., and went to a cafe, was shot by a state trooper. He didn't give me no name.

GRACE: The ER in Good Sam had four curtained stalls. They put Jimmie on the table in the second one.

BOOKER: Got him up on there and tried to stretch him out. But he was in such pain, he was just coming back up. And then I noticed when I pulled the sheet up, there was a hole on the left side as big as a grapefruit. Intestines was out of that hole.

GRACE: They gave him morphine, then x-rayed him. And then later that night, he underwent surgery. For a couple of days after, it appeared that he might recover from the wounds. Booker recalls feeling hopeful in those first days.

BOOKER: He was one of the patients in my life that - I just encouraged him. And he was one of the ones I was sure would get well. I just knew Jimmie Lee would be all right. But that third, fourth night, I could tell he was just getting weaker, and he was getting fever. I knew then. I said, Lord, he's getting infected - getting infected. He did. He died eight days later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Two funerals were held for Jimmie Lee Jackson. There was an open-casket memorial service at Brown Chapel AME in Selma, which nearly 3,000 people showed up for, and one at the church in Marion, where he'd been a deacon. After the Marion service, a procession half a mile long walked four miles to the Heard Cemetery, where Jimmie Lee Jackson was buried.

BOOKER: I've been by the cemetery. And after - I don't know whether you've probably heard this - after he died and everything, someone went and shot the grave up - tombstone. I mean, the holes are there. I've been there. You ever go to Marion - on that road? They shot it up. That wasn't good enough, for him to die. They shot his tombstone. The marks are still there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: A little bit of poison ivy out here.

CHUCK FAGER: Well, it's been three plus years since I've been here. And I'm looking at this thing.

BRANTLEY: We're standing at Jimmie Lee Jackson's grave just a little ways outside of Marion. And we're looking at the bullet holes in the headstone. We've come here today with Chuck Fager. In '65, Fager worked in Selma for Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

FAGER: I don't think I see new bullet holes. Maybe that means people have decided to leave it alone. I don't know. It was shocking when I first saw it.

GRACE: Have you ever seen the video footage of the funeral here?

FAGER: No, but I was in it.

GRACE: You were here for the funeral.

FAGER: Yeah. As a matter of fact, that was the last time that I was asked to march around Dr. King.

BRANTLEY: One of Fager's jobs during the Selma campaign was to stick close to Dr. King. He wasn't called a bodyguard, but that was essentially the deal. The day of Jackson's funeral, it was drizzling rain.

GRACE: I've only seen the footage, but it looked like it was just the most ominous day for a funeral, you know?

FAGER: Yeah, and we marched all the way. This is a pretty long stretch...

GRACE: Yeah, it is.

FAGER: ...From town. We came all the way out here in the rain. Lots of - I think umbrellas protected Dr. King from snipers more than I did or anybody else 'cause it was - there were lots of umbrellas in the rain.

GRACE: It's interesting. And something we've talked a lot about - standing here in front of Jimmie Lee Jackson's grave is probably a good place to talk about it - the contrast and comparison between Jimmie Lee's death and Reeb's death.

FAGER: A white man's death gets more attention. Is racism partly behind that? Yes. I have no quarrel with that. That's not the whole story. There's an importance to Jimmie Lee Jackson's death, which I maybe didn't realize as much till much later. Jimmie Lee Jackson's death catalyzed the black community in this part of the state, OK? It was a big deal here. OK, it didn't get it international whatever. But the catalytic effect on the black community here was very important to Bevel's ability - I mean, it created a force that he was able to mobilize and direct into the march.

BRANTLEY: Fager is talking about James Bevel, the charismatic field organizer of the SCLC, who was directing the operations in Selma. Bevel's response to Jackson's death was that some large demonstration needed to happen.

FAGER: He found a Bible verse somewhere in the Old Testament where somebody says, I must go see the king. And that became his refrain. The king was George Wallace, and we got to go see the king and tell him this has to stop. They had enough after Jimmie Lee Jackson, and they wanted to do something.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: Well, after Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed, Jim Bevel and I decided to go and pay a visit to the family.

BRANTLEY: That's Bernard Lafayette, a veteran civil rights organizer who helped lay the groundwork for the voting rights campaign here.

LAFAYETTE: And when we arrived, his home was just like one of those shotgun houses. And it was on stilts, you know, bricks and stuff like that, and there was open sewage running in the backyard. And the whole family had been brutalized. There was his grandfather with the knot on his head, and there was his mother all bandaged up and sister with her arm broken. There were broken spirits and also broken bones

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: For months, there have been demonstrations in Marion and in Selma. But this event - the unbridled violence, the police brutality, the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson - it was categorically different.

LAFAYETTE: We were sitting in the kitchen, and Bevel asked the grandfather whether he thought the marches should continue. And he very quickly, you know, said, yes, definitely, they should continue. He said, I've lost everything; I have nothing more to lose now.

BRANTLEY: Sitting at the kitchen table with Jimmie Lee Jackson's grandfather, hearing his accounting of what could be gained and what could be lost, it all sounded familiar to Bernard Lafayette.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: A couple of years before this, Bernard Lafayette was just starting out with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. SNCC was sending staff into rural communities to begin voter registration drives, and Lafayette wanted to be the director of one of those projects.

LAFAYETTE: I was 22 years old. So, you know, 22 - you got to be in charge of something.

GRACE: So he went to SNCC headquarters in Atlanta.

LAFAYETTE: And there was a map of the South, and there was Alabama, but it had an X through it. I said, well, what about Alabama? He said, well, we're not going there because we already sent two teams of SNCC workers there and they came back with the same report. Nothing could be done there in Dallas County. They had the same reason, they said, it was - white folks were too mean and black people too scared.

GRACE: But Lafayette went anyway. Soon he was in Selma surveying the challenge.

LAFAYETTE: As long as you have people who are afraid, they also believe that nothing can be done. And they want things to stay the same. So my first task had to deal with helping scared black folks, you know, have some courage.

GRACE: When Lafayette arrived in Selma in early 1963, the civil rights movement was reaching its apex. The Montgomery bus boycott and then the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides had unleashed a wave of activism against segregation and against voting restrictions. And it would only build from there. Finally, white Americans seemed to be paying attention. But these other demonstrations had happened in larger cities. Selma was an entirely different story.

LAFAYETTE: Black families had worked for the same white family for generations. And some of the women there were wet nurses; they nursed some of the white children. So there was a closeness that you couldn't imagine. First of all, they didn't believe change was possible, and then they didn't want to disturb their relationship because they felt very protective. They used to tell me that if God wanted us to be equal with whites, he would have made us white. You had to have a great imagination that any change was going to happen in Selma, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARLES MAULDIN: There was an area next to Selma University where the young folks would gather; it's called the block, and we sort of would hang down there.

GRACE: Charles Mauldin was a 15-year-old high school student in 1963.

MAULDIN: And Bernard Lafayette started showing up down there and talking to guys like myself; began to ask us simple questions like, well, why can't your parents vote, or why can't you drink out of the white water fountain? Or - just simple questions that we had no answers to. We had been terrorized into staying inside of the box, and he began to ask questions that we had never dared ask ourselves because it was just too threatening. That would've been a danger to white society.

GRACE: In talking to high-schoolers like Charles Mauldin, Lafayette was assembling an army for an as-yet-unannounced battle. What they were gearing up for wasn't just a campaign of incremental skirmishes to achieve legislative victories; this was a broader battle to change the very consciousness of Americans.

MAULDIN: Once our consciousness was opened by people like Stokely and Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, our minds grew by leaps and bounds. And unless you're sort of booted out of normalcy, then it's normal to not strive to increase your consciousness, you know. And Dr. King talked about that in Montgomery, about ending certain types of normalcies. You know, the normalcy of white supremacy, the normalcy of, like, poverty, the normalcy of the lack of distribution of wealth - that's normal. It takes electricity to somehow shock you out of that. And we had no way of understanding whether we'd succeeded or not because it was all so new and so much bigger than probably anything that'd happened since the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Selma had been the X on the map in the SNCC office in Atlanta for a reason; it had a reputation for being too volatile a place to organize. But Lafayette figured out a way to harness that volatility so that Selma was now generating the right kind of electricity - the kind of electricity that would bring hundreds of black people to the courthouse to register to vote each month, the kind of electricity that would fill the jails with peaceful protesters, the kind of electricity that would attract the attention of the Department of Justice.

BRANTLEY: The Department of Justice actually sued the city in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit over unconstitutional voter suppression in 1964. You may remember this from an earlier episode - among the named plaintiffs were Sheriff Jim Clark and the local prosecutor Blanchard McLeod, who had failed to gain a conviction against the men accused of killing Jim Reeb.

And after Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion, it was up to Blanchard McLeod to determine what to do. A shooting demands an inquiry. A state trooper shot an unarmed civil rights demonstrator in the stomach.

McLeod told the press he had a signed confession of the shooter, but that the man had claimed self-defense. McLeod refused to identify him and refused to even acknowledge that he was a state trooper. It's unclear what evidence was presented to the grand jury, but no indictment was handed down.

These things, though, are clear - that the man who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson was not brought to justice in 1965; that Jackson's death made his grandfather say to Bernard Lafayette and to James Bevel, yes, keep marching; I don't have anything left to lose, and that the march which then happened resulted in another brutal attack, this one in broad daylight, at the foot of a bridge, with television cameras rolling. And that footage, broadcast around the world, begat a call from Dr. King, which begat a swarm of ministers to Selma, among whom was a Unitarian from Boston named Jim Reeb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: The Alabama state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson wasn't publicly identified at the time. Decades later, he admitted to pulling the trigger. But he didn't make this admission to police who were investigating the crime. Instead, he admitted it to a reporter. That's after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN FLEMING: I had heard about him when I was growing up, when I was still a kid growing up in south Alabama, that he was - had been a former state trooper. He spent time in Vietnam. He was an intriguing character. He ran for public office a couple of times. And I had also heard that he had killed a man during the civil rights movement. But that's all; that's all I heard.

GRACE: John Fleming is now the executive editor of the Center for Sustainable Journalism. Before that, he spent years covering conflicts in South and West Africa, then returned to his native Alabama to work for The Anniston Star.

FLEMING: Everyone knows about Jimmie Lee Jackson. Everyone - there's ample reporting about how he was killed in this place called Mack's Cafe. But it just refers to the trooper, the trooper.

GRACE: Fleming had always been interested in these unsolved murders of the civil rights era. And he started thinking back about the Jimmie Lee Jackson story. He wondered if this man he'd grown up hearing about, James Bonard Fowler, was the same trooper who'd shot Jimmie Lee Jackson.

FLEMING: I made a few inquiries. The people I knew in south Alabama and a friend of mine who knew him offered an introduction. And it took a few weeks to get it into place, but we met at this ranch house down in south Alabama - bucolic woods all around, fishpond next door. And we were sitting on couches. But he did ask for a beer early on, and someone went and fetched him a Natural Light, as I recall. And then we just started. And one of the very first things that Bonard Fowler told me was that he was indeed the person he shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson.

GRACE: After Fleming published his story, it didn't take long for the news to make its way to Selma and Marion.

MICHAEL JACKSON: I'm going to be very honest on this because I believe in being blunt and honest - I thought Fowler was dead. So many years had passed, I just - I had grew up reading this stuff, and we learned about it in school, too. So at the time I became district attorney - I actually took office in January 2005 - I thought Fowler was dead.

GRACE: That's District Attorney Michael Jackson. In 2005, he was newly elected and the only African American DA in Alabama. His circuit, which consists of five counties, is the largest in the state.

JACKSON: And once that interview hit, I started getting calls from everybody - letters, calls - people calling, saying, you need to open up an investigation. And I said, fine. I didn't think anything was going to come of it, but it was my job as district attorney to look into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACKSON: So I hopped in my car and went down to Marion, the courthouse in Marion, and sat on the corner, waiting for folks to pass - walk by.

GRACE: A confession to a newspaper reporter is one thing, but in order to actually prosecute the case, Jackson would need more than that - he needed witnesses. So he just went down to the courthouse and started watching people.

JACKSON: And I'm figuring, I'm calculating the age of people. I'm saying, well, this person would've been around then if they grew up in Marion. So I started talking to people.

GRACE: And pretty quickly, that first day, actually, he found a few people who knew people who had been there. A few weeks passed. He gathered more people who could testify. And finally, he made his way to Vera Booker.

BOOKER: 2/18/65 - that's the date this was made in a composition book. This is original.

JACKSON: And Ms. Booker can talk. And so after Ms. Booker, I think that was, like, the final thing. I said, OK, I'm going to take this to the grand jury. I think I got enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Standing in a courtroom in rural Marion, Ala., today, 77-year-old James Fowler said he didn't mean to kill anyone. Fowler was soon to face trial for the 1965 murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young voting rights activist shot to death during a clash with white state troopers. District Attorney Michael Jackson, no relation to the victim, says Fowler agreed to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and will serve six months in jail.

BRANTLEY: Fowler was sentenced to six months, but spent only five in jail. He was released in the spring of 2011, died in the summer of 2015. If you go to Marion today and talk to people about what happened in this case, you'll hear a lot of different opinions. Some will say that Fowler never should've been tried in the first place. He was an old man. What's past is past - water under the bridge. Others will say the short jail time was an insult to Jimmie Lee Jackson's memory, that Fowler walked free for 45 years. And that whole time, the main law enforcement agency of the state of Alabama knew his identity.

But Michael Jackson had a tough decision to make. So many years had passed since the crime, so few living witnesses. And to take a case this polarizing to trial, it all brought the possibility of a hung jury and a retrial. What if Fowler died in the interim without ever being held accountable? For Michael Jackson, a plea deal seemed like the best way to square the circle.

What's the best case scenario for one of these?

JACKSON: Well, I think - of course, the best case is the defendant gets some time. But the second thing is just to bring answers to the family, you know, about what actually happened. These cases like Reverend Reed are cases that are discussed in books that kids read when they're growing up. And so to know the truth, I just think that's very important. Whether somebody goes to jail or not, you're still trying to bring closure to these folks' families and also history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLEMING: Going back to those communities and telling those stories from beginning to end is something of a healing process for those communities and for the South and for the nation. And of course, we still haven't had that. Having that outing of all the wrongs that were done is just - it's hugely important as a starting point for rebuilding your society. And we've never really had that before. And it's a collective cleansing that we still need. We can go another hundred years, but we're still going to need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: Fleming had found Fowler because he remembered a story from his youth about an eccentric man who may have shot a civil rights worker. Michael Jackson had found witnesses by installing himself on the courthouse square and simply asking people over a certain age if they knew anything about Jimmie Lee Jackson's murder.

And if we were going to find the fourth man who had attacked Jim Reeb, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen on the corner of Washington Street on March 9, 1965, we would have to use a process of elimination. If what Frances said was true, that there was another person involved in the attack, surely his name was somewhere in the FBI file.

There are roughly 200 names in the FBI file. We'd already identified all the potential witnesses the FBI had interviewed. But somewhere in the 264 pages of the file, we felt certain we would find the man's name. So we knocked on more doors, made still more phone calls to disconnected numbers, drove back and forth across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Almost invariably, we'd stop at the Selma Public Library, looking for addresses by consulting their collection of phone books going back to the '50s.

And from the south-facing windows on the second floor of the library, you can look down on to the corner of Washington Street to the exact spot where the attack on the three ministers took place. And it was on one of these days when I was at the library looking for addresses and reading newspapers on the microfilm machine that Chip was on the other side of town, knocking on the door of the fourth man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: It was just before lunch when I knocked on the front door of a house at the end of a dead-end street. A woman in her late 60s cracked open the door. I introduced myself and told her I was working on a story about Selma in 1965 about an attack on some ministers down on Washington Street. I told her I'd come across the name of a man who may have been on the street that night and might know something about the attack. I wondered if the man listed at this address was the same man from that night in 1965.

Yes, she said. You're in the right place. She said she was his wife. They'd gotten together in the early 1970s after all this happened. But when they decided to get married, he told her all about his past. She said I was welcome to come in and talk with him. It'd be good for him to talk, she said, because he'd had three small strokes recently and was having some memory issues.

She led me down a hallway into their den, where the man was lying on a recliner watching Fox News. I told him that I'd found his name in the FBI file related to the attack on Jim Reeb, that according to the file, the FBI had tried to talk to him twice back in 1965, but that he'd refused, that we were now trying to get a definitive account of what happened on the night of March 9, 1965 and that I was hoping he would tell me what he knows about that night.

I don't know, he said. I have trouble remembering things. I could see them in my mind, but I just can't get them out of my mouth. As we talked, there were moments when the man would forget what he was talking about, when he'd begin to answer a question but then stop and ask me again what it was I wanted to know. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone through something like this toward the end of her life. And sitting there, imagining some stranger showing up at her house to ask her about her past, I felt like a snake in the grass.

But then there were these other moments of lucidity, when this man got through a whole story and seemed to recall it as if it were just last week. And each of those moments was a little reminder of why I was there - to get the truth about the murder of Jim Reeb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRANTLEY: I kept trying to steer the conversation back to that night on Washington Street. At one point, the man said he'd thought about writing everything down about that night, but now he couldn't do it. What would you have written down? I asked him. What do you remember about that night? All I did, he said, was kick one of them. His wife then said, you never knew you did so much - did you? - until you heard about it on the news the next day.

I asked them if I could come back and record an interview with them, but the man's wife said, no, I don't think we would do that. But she did say that we were welcome to come back and visit any time.

GRACE: This man had said that he was there, that he and Elmer Cook and the Hoggle brothers had attacked the three ministers on the street. The attack caused the death of Jim Reeb. But we needed to confirm his story. So we returned to the Sphinx of Washington Street. After all, it was Frances Bowden, the eyewitness to the attack, who had told us about the existence of this fourth man.

When we stopped by Selma Bail Bond, Frances was, as always, behind her desk, smoking her Winston Light 100s. We told her that we had an idea about who the fourth man was, and she said, again, that she wouldn't tell us his name. We said, if we tell you his name, will you tell us if we're right?

She smiled gamely and nodded, like, sure, go for it. When we said the man's name, she blanched and pointed her cigarette at us. You can't tell anybody, she said. It'll get him in a lot of trouble. It could get me in a lot of trouble. We told Frances she should just go on the record and tell us about the fourth attacker. But she said she'd lie about it if we told anybody she knew the identity of the fourth man.

So what could we do? Well, we kept going back to visit with this man and his wife. We'd sit underneath the cedar trees on the far end of the driveway. He had good days and bad days. We watched the hummingbirds. One time he looked at me smiling and said, I know I should know you, but I don't know you.

And then, finally, one day, they said we could record them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't remember nothing. I don't want to remember nothing.

BRANTLEY: Why don't you want to remember?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When I wanted to lose it, I lost it and never said a word for it. I never opened my mouth for nobody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRACE: That's next time on WHITE LIES.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY IT DOWN")

DONNIE FRITTS: (Singing) Traveling down two different roads trying hard to leave alone. We take advantage (ph), but we can't let go. It's so hard to lay it down. Hiding me, Anna (ph), confide in me. Don't you think it's time to be all the things, oh, you tried to be? You and me should lay it down. Well, speak to me, be unashamed. There's no need, no, in playing games. After all, we're just all the same, trying hard to lay it down.

BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is produced by us, Graham Smith, Nicole Beemsterboer and Connor Towne O'Neill, with help from Cat Schuknecht. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom.

GRACE: Robert Little edits the show, along with N'Jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Christopher Turpin. Audio engineers include Jay Ciz (ph), James Willits (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. Special thanks to Donnie Fritts for the use of this song, "Lay It Down," courtesy of Single Lock Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY IT DOWN")

FRITTS: (singing) ...Take us from, oh, this self-made hell (ph). Find a way to lay it down. I'm burdened by all the things I've learned....

BRANTLEY: Archival tape in this episode comes from Washington University in St. Louis. Special thanks to Dr. Billie Jean Young and the people at Lottie's Restaurant in Marion. Neal Carruth is NPR's general manager for podcasts, and Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming. Visit us on the web at npr.org/whitelies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY IT DOWN")

FRITTS: (Singing) Lay it down, brother - lay it down - it's so hard to lay it down - lay it down. Lay it down, my sister - lay it down - you and me should lay it down - lay it down. Ooh, lay it down - lay it down - we've got to find a way to lay it down (ph). Lay it down.

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