Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old laborer and church deacon, was shot to death in Mack’s Cafe in Marion, Ala., on the night of Feb. 18, 1965, and the killing proved historic: It provoked the fateful voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, turning the tide for the civil rights movement.
For more than four decades, though, the crime itself was largely ignored. Justice for Mr. Jackson was deferred, largely because of what distinguished his case from those of other black Americans killed at the hands of Southern whites back then. In his case, the suspect was not only white but also a law-enforcement officer.
It was not until March 6, 2005, in an interview with The Anniston Star, that the officer, Bonard Fowler, by then a former Alabama state trooper, acknowledged publicly that he had fired the shot that felled Mr. Jackson. He insisted that he had acted in self-defense. Two years later, a grand jury convened by Alabama’s only black district attorney indicted Mr. Fowler on charges of murder. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter, apologized and served five months in jail.
He died at 81 on Sunday, a few months after President Obama led a delegation to Selma to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful demonstrators trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general, were clubbed, bullwhipped and tear-gassed by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies.
The Bottoms Garden Chapel Funeral Home in Geneva, Ala., confirmed Mr. Fowler’s death, saying the family would release no other information. He had dementia, his daughter told The Daily News this year, and he lived near Black, Ala.
James Bonard Fowler, familiarly known by his middle name, was born on Sept. 10, 1933. He served in the Navy, attended the University of Alabama and joined the State Police in 1961, according to The Associated Press.
He was a 31-year-old state trooper in 1965 when local civil rights strategists concluded that they could generate more publicity for their cause in Marion, which appeared to be more of a racial tinderbox, than in Selma.
The first group arrested in Marion had been trying to desegregate a restaurant. Boycotts of businesses and schools then began. To protest the arrest of 600 student civil rights volunteers and James Orange, a field secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Alabama black leaders and a representative of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined hundreds of demonstrators in a march from the Zion United Methodist Church to the Marion jail.
They were met by a wall of local and state law enforcement officers and ordered to disperse.
Suddenly the streetlights went dark. A melee ensued. Protesters were clubbed, and some sought refuge at Mack’s. Among them were Mr. Jackson’s grandfather, Cager Lee, 82, and his mother, Viola Jackson. When Mr. Jackson rushed to rescue his mother, he was shoved against a cigarette machine and shot twice in the stomach. He died eight days later.
“Jimmie Lee Jackson was proclaimed a martyr and buried in a country graveyard here today,” The New York Times reported.
Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
David Garrow, a scholar of the civil rights movement and the author, among other books, of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” said Mr. Jackson’s death was the impetus for the marches from Selma to Montgomery.
“It is this decisive casualty which starts the whole ball rolling, but for 40 years of the half-century since then, no one knew who the gunman was,” Mr. Garrow, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said in an interview.
The deaths the next month in Alabama of two white civil rights advocates, Viola Liuzzo and the Rev. James J. Reeb, helped galvanize a nationwide movement. But, Professor Garrow said, “Jackson’s death received vastly less attention because he was black.”
In the initial investigations into the shootings, Mr. Fowler was identified by the authorities only by his last name. Two grand juries failed to indict him. The Star revealed his identity after he agreed to be interviewed by the newspaper’s editor at large, John Fleming.
In that interview, Mr. Fowler admitted that he had shot Mr. Jackson but asserted that Mr. Jackson had been brandishing a bottle and was reaching for Mr. Fowler’s gun.
“Jimmie Lee Jackson was not murdered,” the paper quoted him as saying. “He was trying to kill me. I have no doubt in my mind that, under the emotional situation at the time, that if he would have gotten complete control of my pistol, he would have killed me or shot me. That’s why my conscience is clear.”
Mr. Fleming said Mr. Fowler “consistently maintained he was carrying out the orders of his superiors and ultimately of George Wallace,” the governor of Alabama at the time.
While Mr. Fleming described Mr. Fowler as “an extremely intelligent, well-read man and not some ignorant redneck,” he quoted him as saying: “I don’t believe in completely mixing the races. I don’t think that is gonna help anything.” His wife was from Southeast Asia.
In the interview he complained that blacks “won’t hesitate to wear their colors — green, black and red — but they will get mad if you put the Confederate flag on the front of your car.”
According to The Star’s account, in 1966 Mr. Fowler shot and killed another unarmed black man, who he said had attacked him with a billy club in a local jail after being arrested during a traffic stop in Alabaster, Ala. In 1968 Mr. Fowler was fired for assaulting a supervisor.
That same year, Mr. Fowler said, he enlisted in the military to avenge the death of his brother, Robert, who had been killed in combat in Vietnam. Assigned to his brother’s rifle company, Mr. Fowler received two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart.
After the war he married and established a home and family in Thailand. There, in the late 1980s, he helped the American military authorities expose a murder-for-hire plot. He was later arrested at the Bangkok airport on charges of heroin trafficking and imprisoned. He said he had been framed.
In 2007, when Mr. Fowler was indicted in the shooting of Mr. Jackson, his lawyer, George Beck, cautioned, “We have to be real careful in discriminating between those acts of intentional violence as opposed to the trooper who’s trying to protect the public, who may be trying to act on orders of his supervisor.”
After accepting a misdemeanor charge in a plea bargain, Mr. Fowler was sentenced to six months in jail but released after five, for health reasons.
“He admitted his guilt, he apologized to the family for what he had done, and he served some time,” said Michael W. Jackson, the district attorney who had obtained the indictment. “It helped bring closure to the family and to history.”
Mr. Fleming, the Star editor who is now the executive editor of theCenter for Sustainable Journalism in Kennesaw, Ga., agreed with that sentiment.
“One thing we’ve never experienced in the South is anything close to a truth and reconciliation commission,” he told The Times in 2010 after Mr. Fowler formally acknowledged his guilt. “What happened today was a moment of that experience.”