Jury Selection Begins For Civil-Rights Cold Case Former state trooper James Bonard Fowler is charged with murder in connection with the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed in Marion, Ala. after a civil rights protest in 1965. Fowler, now 77, claims it was self-defense. Jackson's death galvanized civil rights leaders and led to the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march.

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Jury Selection Begins For Civil-Rights Cold Case

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A criminal case dating back to the civil rights era is back in the headlines. Jury selection begins today in the murder trial of a former state trooper in Alabama. He's charged with killing a black protester, named Jimmie Lee Jackson, in 1965. As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, that killing became a pivotal moment in the fight for civil rights.

KATHY LOHR: This was the Deep South in 1965, and segregation was the law of the land. Anyone who protested against the system was met with violence. Not far from Selma, in Marion, Alabama, a group of African Americans was gathering in a church at night. Alabama state troopers, including James Bonard Fowler, were called in to break up the meeting, and they began beating protesters with billy clubs. Among them, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Mr. RICHARD COHEN (President, Southern Poverty Law Center): This is a case that has been, I think, a longstanding wound in the national psyche.

LOHR: Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

Mr. COHEN: A case where a young man, a civil rights activist, was killed by an -Alabama state troopers, under very suspicious circumstances.

LOHR: Jackson had fled to Mack's Cafe, and some witnesses said he was being beaten as he tried to protect his mother and grandfather. But Fowler, who is now 77 years old, said he acted in self-defense. He shot Jackson in the stomach, but claims the protester was trying to take away his gun. Eight days later, Jackson died at a local hospital, and Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Alabama to speak at the funeral.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Leader): He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, and cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking the right to vote.

LOHR: State and federal law enforcement investigated at the time, but no charges were filed until 2007. Fowler's attorney, George Beck, declined to comment before the trial. But earlier, he told NPR: This is a tough case, precisely because it is so old.

Mr. GEORGE BECK (Attorney): Two troopers who were eyewitnesses no longer exist. They're dead. So that's two eyewitnesses we don't have. We don't have Governor Wallace, who made the order. We don't have those people to talk about the atmosphere, to re-create what was going on, and to actually be eyewitnesses. So, we're hamstrung - and prejudiced greatly by that.

LOHR: One of the reasons this case has moved forward is because Perry County elected its first black district attorney, Michael Jackson. Jackson, who is not related to the victim, says people need to know what really happened, but he declined to comment before the trial. Dean of the law school at Samford University in Birmingham, John Carroll, says jurors will hear two vastly different versions of the story.

Mr. JOHN CARROLL (Law School Dean, Samford University): If you're the defense, you're going to argue the town was agitated, everybody was afraid, it was necessary to preserve order; and that's what this trooper was doing. And if you're the prosecutor, you're going to say these were peaceful marchers, they were gathering peacefully, and that this was cold-blooded murder.

LOHR: More than 20 civil rights era cases have come to trial since 1994, including the successful prosecution of James Ford Seale in Mississippi, for the murder of two black teens; and the convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Doug Jones is the former U.S. attorney in Alabama, who prosecuted the church-bombing cases.

Mr. DOUG JONES (Former U.S. Attorney): This is not just a random Klansman, like who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Here you've got a state trooper, law-enforcement officer, called out to keep order. That in - gives a dynamic to this case that's not present in the normal civil-rights cold cases.

LOHR: Jimmie Lee Jackson's death galvanized civil-rights leaders. Just days after Jackson's death, activists marched from Selma to Montgomery. And the police brutality during that march - known as Bloody Sunday - ultimately led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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