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Black lives matter: We celebrate ‘The First George Floyd’ after 56 years

A sudden global awareness emerged on May 25th,2020. It was facilitated by the gruesome murder of George Floyd, a 46 year-old Black-man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, on 25th May, 2020.

His crime? Being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 Dollar bill. In the course of Floyd’s arrest, Derek Chauvin, a White Police Officer, working with the Minneapolis Police Department, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes 29 seconds.

This was after the suspect had been handcuffed and lying with his face down. Two other Police Officers, J Alex Kueng and Thomas Lane, assisted Chauvin in Floyd’s arrest. Tou Thao, the fourth Police Officer, prevented bystanders from interfering; goading on Chauvin with his murderous motive.  

Chauvin ignored pleas from the obviously grieving bystander to lift his knee. He wouldn’t budge until urged by paramedics. Chauvin has since been convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree unintentional murder, third degree murder and second degree manslaughter.

Kueng, Lane and Thao are charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder. Chauvin’s trial began on March 8 and concluded on April 20. The City of Minneapolis agreed to pay 27million to settle wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Floyds family.

There are many of such chilling murders of especially, African Americans in the 50s and the 60s when Civil Rights Movements became a vessel to fight for Freedom and Civil Liberties.

In 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Blackman was killed by the police and that inspired the equal voting rights in the US; unfortunately, his name seems to have been forgotten. The following is a detail report in the USA Today, on the man many today refer to as the ‘FIRST GEORGE FLOYD’



           Javonte Anderson, USA TODAY

HE LAY ON the pavement with a bullet wound in his stomach, engulfed in chaos and darkness.

It was 1965. A year soon scarred by social and political upheaval: The assassination of Malcolm X. Bloody Sunday. The Vietnam War. The Watts Riots. 

Jimmie Lee Jackson would see none of it.

The 26-year-old showed up the night of Feb. 18 in Marion, Alabama, where hundreds of people had gathered to march in protest of the arrest of a local civil rights activist. When police and state troopers intervened to break up the march, the scene outside Zion United Methodist Church turned violent.

The unseen, unheard, lost and forgotten stories of America’s people of colour

Fists. Feet. Nightsticks. Bottles. Cattle prods. And a single shot from an Alabama state trooper's revolver that ripped through Jackson’s stomach as he tried to shield his mother from the attacks.

His death eight days later altered the course of American history. It united activists in Marion and Selma, making their combined campaigns for desegregation and voting rights powerful enough to resonate around the world.

Yet Jackson's name is little more than a footnote in time. 

"It was the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson that provoked the march from Selma to Montgomery," said John Lewis, a civil rights icon and U.S. congressman, in 2007. "It was his death and his blood that gave us the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson is the forgotten catalyst of the voting right movement

Before the Selma to Montgomery march, there was a night march in Marion where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965.

As the nation nears one year since the death of George Floyd, who inspired another national outcry for racial equality, USA TODAY looks at Jackson's story to understand why he is a forgotten martyr of the civil rights movement. 

USA TODAY inspected hundreds of un-redacted FBI files that few have seen, along with court records and newspaper accounts from the 1960s that illustrate the racial tension in central Alabama in the weeks leading up to Jackson's death. 

We also interviewed dozens of historians, eyewitnesses, local citizens and relatives of Jackson to reconstruct what happened the night Jackson was fatally shot and to shed light on who he was as a person, why his legacy is overshadowed and how his death in 1965 is connected to the racial reckoning America experienced last year.

Fifty-five years after Jackson’s death, in a city more than a thousand miles north, another Black man lay motionless on the pavement. This time, his life was draining under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis. 

The death of 46-year-old Floyd ignited a movement of its own.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans nationwide poured into the streets to protest racial inequality, police violence and the systems that perpetuate racism decades after the civil rights movement.

Floyd’s name echoed through every major American city and indeed, around the world, along with the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Every movement has a catalyst, the person, place or situation that moves people to action. In 2020, it was Floyd. In 1965, it was Jackson.  But with Jackson, almost no one says his name.

An ordinary man in the segregated South

BEFORE A BULLET ripped through Jackson’s body, he was just an ordinary man. He once chopped wood for a living, earning $6 a day. He was a deacon at a local Baptist church and worked at the county hospital.  And like many other Black folks living in the rural Deep South, he was frustrated with segregation and being denied the right to vote.

Jimmie Lee and his little sister, Emma Jean Jackson, grew up in a shotgun shack on the edge of a stream.

After Jimmie Lee's father died in a car accident, his grandfather, Cager Lee, became his father figure. And as Lee aged, he relied on Jimmie Lee, whom he called "Bunky," for transportation. 

"My grandfather depended on him so much," said Evelyn Rogers, one of Jimmie Lee’s cousins.

"Bunky, take me to town. Bunky, I need to go to the store. Bunky, I need to go to this person's house."

After Jimmie Lee’s death, few details about him emerged. In this era, the media didn’t explore the personal lives of regular Black men who were killed by police. Therefore, the story of Jimmie Lee’s life has been largely lost to time as the family members closest to him have died. His sister and closest living relative, Emma, declined to be interviewed for this story.

But USA TODAY interviewed several other relatives to get a glimpse into who Jimmie Lee was.

Rogers recalled Jimmie Lee as a modest man who cared most about taking care of his family. "He was a very simple guy," she said.

Cousin Anne Robinson, now 75, remembers his beautiful smile and how Jimmie Lee let her and Emma borrow his 1963 green and white Chevy so they could learn how to drive. "He just always liked to help people,” she said.

A day filled with tension

JIMMIE LEE JACKSON was shot on a February day filled with all the classic ingredients for mayhem in the Deep South: segregation and mounting racial tensions, Black folks daring to push back against inequality, police officers steadfast on enforcing the status quo and civil rights leaders hoping to bring national attention to bear on Alabama.

In January 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived in nearby Selma to electrify the voting rights campaign. Central Alabama was one of the worst places in America when it came to suppressing Black votes. 

Black voters accounted for just 2% in Perry County, where Marion is located, despite representing nearly two-thirds of the county population.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and local groups, including the Perry County Civic Justice League, had been focused on voter registration campaigns for months. But the arrival of King and other national civil rights figures both energized local protests and agitated law enforcement.

Black residents were chafing against an Alabama political system that didn't want to yield to racial integration. They marched. They sat in the “whites only” areas at movie theaters and restaurants. They boycotted businesses. The tension was mounting.

In early February, two weeks before Jackson was shot, hundreds of students walked out of a Marion high school to protest segregation, starting a three-week boycott of school. 

Police were hauling Black youths off to state prison camps by the busload. 

The newspaper in Alabama's state capital noted the unprecedented number of arrests made in Selma and Marion. 

"800 More Arrested as Tension Builds," a Montgomery Advertiser front-page headline on Feb. 4, 1965, read.

The jails were overflowing with Black people, said Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights leader who worked in Selma at the time. "We wouldn't let up. We kept marching, kept the pressure on. We were breaking the system of local government."

On the morning of Feb. 18, 1965, FBI agents were on the ground, monitoring the civil rights protest activity in Marion. Seldom-seen notes agents made on their reports and dozens of eyewitness testimonies help re-create the day’s events.

That morning, police arrested James Orange, an activist key to SCLC’s voter registration efforts in central Alabama, for encouraging students to join a march.

Activists learned that a group of Ku Klux Klansmen planned to lynch Orange while he was in police custody, Lafayette said. So organizers planned a nighttime march from the church to the jail for his protection.

However, Marion Police Chief T.O. Harris learned more civil rights leaders were coming from Selma, and "they planned to put on a show that night." So he and Perry County Sheriff William Loftis sought help from Alabama state troopers.

As the sun fell, the mood began to shift. Hundreds of Black people poured into Zion United church shortly before 7 p.m.

They raised their voices in song; the melody wafting out of the red brick and wooden steepled church caught the ear of FBI agent Archibald Riley as he peered through a second-story window in a building across the street. 

Emma Jackson told the FBI she saw her brother enter the cafe to help their grandfather and she saw the troopers force them back inside. She said Jimmie Lee Jackson then stood near the counter and cigarette machine. He was visibly upset, so his sister "kept talking to (him) to calm him down."

"But he did not appear as if he were going to cause trouble," she told the FBI. Jackson told the FBI he was drinking from a bottle when he saw a trooper hitting his mother. He went to assist his mother, but his sister held him back. Jackson recalled standing near the doorway when he was shot in the stomach by a trooper.

He then ran out of the cafe. Several troopers followed and beat him with their nightsticks before he collapsed a few yards away. 

Most eyewitnesses corroborated Jackson’s version of events, agreeing that he and his grandfather were pushed back into the cafe while trying to leave. Once inside, police began beating Black folks with their billy clubs.

A scuffle ensued between Jackson’s mother and the police. One eyewitness said they saw Jackson’s mother, who was later hospitalized with a head injury, clubbed on the head. Shortly thereafter, several eyewitnesses said they heard a gunshot.

The hidden figure of voting rights

Off a narrow, two-lane state highway, in an unmarked gravesite that blends in with the surrounding trees, one tombstone stands out. It sits atop a seven-layer bed of bricks, flanked by two wreaths of red flowers.

An image of Jesus is carved into the large gray headstone, but it's marred by several bullet holes. Here, on the outskirts of Marion, Jackson is buried with the rest of his family.

"It was really a tragedy," Jackson’s cousin Evelyn Rogers said. "Here's someone who has never been in trouble. All he did was work and take care of his mother.”

A few miles from his gravesite, in downtown Marion, Jackson's legacy is visible for all to see. A historical marker stands on the lawn of the Perry County courthouse.

"Jimmie Lee Jackson, Voting Rights Martyr," it reads on one side. "Jackson's Death Led To 'Bloody Sunday' March," the other side says. Jackson's death galvanized hundreds more people to become active participants in the movement.

On March 7, little more than a week after Jackson died, about 600 demonstrators marched undisturbed through downtown Selma until they reached the steel-arched Edmund Pettus Bridge that stretched across the Alabama River. 

Led by Lewis and Hosea Williams, a civil rights activist who was there in place of King, demonstrators were met with brutal force from state troopers and local police. They were attacked with clubs and tear-gassed by officers wearing helmets and gas masks.

Bloody Sunday secured Selma's place in the civil rights movement. But it also overshadowed the brutality in Marion that claimed Jackson's life. 

From the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter

AFTER A WHILE, they all began to blur together. Michael Jackson, 57, can't recall the names, just a few hazy details surrounding their deaths. The name of the Black man who was shot in his back by a police officer escapes him. The young man who was shot while carrying a cellphone, too.

"Every time I see this across the country, I do think of Jimmie Lee Jackson," said Michael Jackson. The men are not related.

For decades, no one could prove who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. The FBI files had been sealed. Then in 2004, Fowler admitted to a reporter from the Anniston (Alabama) Star that he was the shooter.

Michael Jackson, who was just elected as the state's second African American district attorney, led the charge to prosecute Fowler.

 


 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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