Oil on canvas: 18 canvases, all 18 inches high; total length 32 feet. Completed 2009.
In 1964 and 1965, African-Americans in Selma, Alabama, and nearby Marion were organizing and marching for voting rights. In February of 1965 a night march was held in Marion to protest the jailing of local civil rights leader James Orange. Soon after filing out of Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church, the marchers were stopped by Police Chief T. O. Harris, backed up by fifty state troopers under the command of Col. Al Lingo. The chief ordered the marchers to disperse or go back to the church. When they refused, the troopers waded into the crowd, shouting and jabbing with their nightsticks. As the protestors fled, the troopers pursued them.
Two troopers chased 82-year-old Cager Lee into Mack’s Café, where his daughter, Vivian, worked. They overturned tables and swung their sticks at protestors and customers alike. When they attacked Cager, Vivian tried to intercede. When they turned on her, her twenty-six-year-old son Jimmie Lee Jackson lunged at them, trying to protect her. They threw the young man into a cigarette machine, and one of the troopers shot him twice in the stomach. The troopers dragged him outside. A white ambulance driver refused to transport him. After a 45-minute wait, a black ambulance driver arrived and took him to a black hospital. A couple of days later Col. Lingo came to Jackson’s hospital bedside and arrested him for assault on a police officer with intent to murder. Jackson died a week after he was shot. James Bevel and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at his memorial service.
Jackson’s death led directly to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.
James Bonard Fowler, the young state trooper who shot Jackson, wrote in an affidavit that Jackson was trying to grab his (Fowler’s) gun. His statements, while backed up by those of his fellow trooper at the scene, were at odds with other eyewitness accounts. Despite occasional attempts over the years, Fowler wasn’t brought to trial until November of 2010. The 77-year-old retired trooper apologized for the shooting and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor manslaughter; he still maintained that he had shot in self-defense. He was given a six-month sentence.
I first learned of this story in Nick Kotz’ Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. I started painting without using any photographs of the characters in the active drama. I got a photograph from an old postcard showing downtown Marion, but I simply invoked a sense of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century brick commercial architecture. I wrote to the pastor and trustees of Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church asking for a photograph of the building, but received no reply. I got a high school graduation photo of Jimmie Lee Jackson and was satisfied that the face and figure I’d made up were close enough to his own. My depictions of his mother and grandfather probably bear little resemblance to their actual features. I obtained a photograph of Col. Al Lingo from the Alabama State Archives, and of course I had access to photographs of Martin Luther King. I remembered from my childhood what a 1963 Ford looked like; our neighbors in Columbus, Ohio, had one.