James Bonard Fowler and Jimmie Lee Jackson: On a 60-year-old shooting death in Alabama

February 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 24, 2015

Earlier this month, I wrote in praise of Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s retelling of the civil rights struggle in that Alabama town.

During the movie, a young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson is senselessly shot and killed by a state trooper after a night protest. As noted in my review, this was based on an actual event, which was described at length in this 2005 feature article in The Anniston Star.

I linked to the story, which was written by John Fleming, in my first post about Selma. Still, I wanted to call attention to the piece on its own, because it tells an extraordinary tale.

Jackson, a relatively new father, was a former soldier who served as a church deacon. (His first name is sometimes spelled Jimmy in accounts of the incident.) He was only 26 years old when Trooper James Bonard Fowler shot him on the evening of Feb. 18, 1965, in Mack’s Café in Marion, Ala. (Curiously, Jackson’s age is not stated in Fleming’s an otherwise seemingly comprehensive story.)

Jackson died on Feb. 26. While he was in the hospital, Col. Al Lingo, the notoriously racist head of the state troopers, served Jackson with an arrest warrant. Martin Luther King Jr. eulogized Jackson at his funeral on March 3, as shown in the movie.

When “The Death of Jimmie Lee Jackson” was published, 50 years after the killing, few if any witnesses had been asked to testify about the incident. But Fowler was eventually charged with murder, due in no small part to Fleming’s reporting. (According to the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, “every civil rights murder case that has been reopened and successfully prosecuted was the direct result of an investigation initiated by a journalist.”)

The former state trooper pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail. Because of illness, that confinement was shortened.

Fowler fatally shot another black man, Nathan Johnson, in 1966. Although the case was reopened by the Justice Department, it’s not clear whether a decision about dropping or proceeding with charges in that death was ever made.

In 1968, shortly after his older brother was killed in Vietnam, Fowler left the state troopers and enlisted in the army. According to the British Daily Mail, Fowler deployed to Vietnam on three tours. He was shot five times and received multiple decorations for his service in country.

But Fleming discovered a different explanation for Fowler’s departure from the state troopers. In a 2007 article, Fleming disclosed that Fowler was discharged after assaulting a superior officer “for giving him a tepid evaluation.” The officer had to be hospitalized after the scuffle, in which both men bit the other.

(The Daily Mail story, which was reported by Paul Thompson and published a few weeks ago, covers much of the same material as Fleming’s 2005 report, although it doesn’t mention the assault on a supervisor. Thompson’s piece is worth checking out because it has a number of photos, both historical and contemporary, of the people and places involved in Jackson’s death. It also discloses that Fowler’s daughter, age 52, is eight years older than Fowler’s current spouse.)

It would be tempting to report that Fowler is an unreconstructed racist, a wholly despicable figure whose physical ailments seem to be the result of karma in action. But that’s…not entirely the case. He seems by turns loathsome and familiar.

A decade ago, Fleming wrote this about Fowler:

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.

Reading Fleming’s description of him, one thinks of “the banality of evil” the famous phrase from the subtitle Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt’s seminal 1963 report on the war crimes trial of a Nazi official. Indeed, Adolf Eichmann himself famously attempted to defend himself by claiming that in planning and participating in the Nazis’ Final Solution, he was simply doing his job.

I encourage you to read more about Fowler, and about Jackson, starting with Fleming’s 2005 report. Decide for yourself what kind of man that he used to be, and what kind of person he is now.


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