Left to right: Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb
Jimmie Lee Jackson was 26 years old when he died. He was unarmed and trying to protect his mother from being beaten. That’s when an Alabama State trooper shot him in the stomach, fatally wounding him.
Jackson was a former soldier, a deacon in his church, the father of a young daughter, and he died in 1965 for our right to vote.
It would take 45 years for the man who murdered Jackson to face justice, and the former trooper only got a six-month jail sentence in 2010.
That’s one part of this sad story. The other is that Jackson’s murder turned out to be a galvanizing moment for voting rights in America.
We’re so busy all the time these days. Squeezing in one more task – filling out our ballot, going to our polling place – can feel burdensome. Shame on us.
We must remember.
That February day, Jackson, his sister, his mother, and his elderly grandparents joined other members of their congregation in a nonviolent march from Zion United Methodist Church to the local jail to protest the fact that a field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was arrested. His charge? Contributing to the delinquency of minors – he was organizing people to register to vote.
The protesters worried for his safety. Local African-Americans knew what could happen in that jail. They feared the voting organizer would be lynched, so they organized a peaceful march to support him.
As Jackson and some 200 others marched, white state troopers and local law enforcement men brutally attacked them. Jackson and his family ran into a nearby café to safety. But the troopers came in, beat the protesters and shot Jackson as he protected his mother. This is how much the holders of the white status quo that day in 1965 feared the power of the populace.
That same fear spreads its long shadow across our country today.
Jackson didn’t die that day. He lingered for days in the hospital, and one of his visitors was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Jimmie Jackson wanted to be free,” King later said. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
Within weeks, a new march was organized, this one on March 7 from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. People who showed up for that march knew how violent the white men of Alabama were, how threatened and how menacing. Yet they persisted.
The sheriff in the next county was so unnerved by these people peacefully seeking the right to vote that he hurriedly issued an order for all white males in the county to come to the courthouse so they could be deputized and confront the marchers.
On a bridge crossing the Alabama River, the violent white men terrorized and beat the marchers. The marchers had been specially trained by organizers – can you imagine? – not to fight back. Not to meet violence with violence.
Because the national media covered that “Bloody Sunday” and exposed the nation to the spectre of white sheriff’s deputies using tear gas, batons, and whips to brutalize marchers, a shift further took hold among the powerful in Washington, D.C.
Seeking justice, the protesters headed out again on March 9, and this time opted to turn back at the bridge. They weren’t finished. With Martin Luther King Jr. and others leading the way, they held a third march. This time there were 25,000 people, national media telling their story, and the federal government providing protection. They made it to Montgomery.
Jackson wasn’t the only one to die that spring for the right to vote. A white minister who’d come to Selma to join the cause, James Reeb, was fatally beaten by white racists. So was 39-year-old Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit mother of five who also traveled south to support the cause of voting rights.
On August 6, after bitter political fighting, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.
It had been less than a year since the brutal murders of Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo. They all bravely took a moral stand in the face of unjust policies, and lost their lives for it.
Today, on Election Day, remember them.
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