In 1965, there was nothing quite so dangerous as a nighttime protest in the Alabama Black Belt. Violence against Civil Rights workers, marchers, peaceful protesters, could flare at anytime in broad daylight. Darkness that year, however, gave cover to hatred and deepened anger.
These were all facts that the 500 or so people filing from the sanctuary of Zion United Methodist Church on the winter night of Feb. 18, 1965, were painfully aware of. Yet they felt they had no choice but to walk into that cold night air and turn toward the city jail half a block away. Inside, locked behind bars, was a young Civil Rights worker, the latest of several hundred people arrested. They planned simply to sing freedom songs to protest his incarceration. But between them and the jail stood a wall of city police officers, sheriff’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers.
As the mass came to a stop before the law enforcement officers, someone switched off the streetlights. In the darkness, came screams and the muffled cracks of billy clubs hitting people. Reporters close in to the town’s square could make out men in uniform first setting upon the peaceful protesters and then chasing them as they fled in all directions. They also saw other white men dressed in casual clothes attacking anyone in their path, Movement activists, peaceful protesters, bystanders and journalists.
A few minutes into the confusion, perhaps 10 Troopers chased a group of protesters into a place called Mack’s Café just off Marion’s city square and directly behind Zion. From that point, nearly all historical accounts and press reports at the time agree the following happened:
As the Troopers entered the café they immediately started overturning tables and hitting customers and marchers alike. In the melee, they clubbed 82-year-old Cager Lee to the floor and his daughter Viola Jackson when she rushed to his aid. When her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to help his mother he was shot in the stomach by a state Trooper.
Jackson was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in nearby Selma, where for days he hovered between life and death, fighting off a growing infection as a result of the gunshot wound. In the throes of his struggle to live, the head of the Alabama State Troopers, Col. Al Lingo (a man often compared in his viciousness toward the Civil Rights Movement to Birmingham’s Bull Connor) served Jackson with an arrest warrant and the Alabama state Senate formally denounced charges of dereliction by Lingo’s Troopers in Marion.
He died a few days later, on Feb. 26.