Marion celebrates Jimmie Lee Jackson Day with parade, memorial service

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Former presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, scheduled to deliver the keynote address for the Jimmie Lee Jackson Day program in Marion Sunday, was a little late arriving to speak. Probably all in attendance at the Marion Baptist School would agree, though, that once Sharpton reached the pulpit, he made up for lost time.

“Too many of us are taking for granted what happened 40 years ago,” he said. “Too many of us don’t see the direct link to what they did to Jimmie Lee Jackson and what they’re doing today.”

Jackson was a civil rights protester shot and killed by state law enforcement during a nighttime march in Marion February 17, 1965. The outcry over Jackson’s death led to the Selma to Montgomery march that became “Bloody Sunday.”

“Because of that march, because of Jimmie Lee Jackson, there are thousands of black mayors across this country,” Sharpton said. “There wouldn’t be a Colin Powell. There wouldn’t be a Condoleezza Rice. Bush is plucking fruit from the trees we planted! Condoleezza needs to remember who it was that brought her from Birmingham to Washington D.C.”

That theme of memory and respect for the sacrifice of previous African-American leaders ran throughout Sharpton’s address, which he delivered with the oratorical swagger that has made him one of America’s most visible ministers.

“I could not have run [for President] if Jimmie Lee Jackson hadn’t made his sacrifice, if people had not suffered, shed blood, and struggled,” he said. “I spoke to a group of black students at Harvard Law School. I told them ‘Y’all ain’t the first smart Negroes in America!’ Your grandmothers, who never went one day to college in their lives, laid their bodies down so you could go to school.”

Sharpton criticized Michael Jackson and other African-American celebrities for he sees as a lack of respect for the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement.

“We get a little success, and we forgot how we got there,” he said. “Don’t ever forget where you’re coming from. No matter who you are, you will never be bigger than the home that brought you into the world!”

“People seem to think Civil Rights was about getting their r/sum/ across a desk,” Sharpton continued, “instead of getting all people across the road of freedom.”

Amid multiple criticisms of the Bush administration, Sharpton spoke out most strongly against the War in Iraq.

“Why are we having national elections in Baghdad when the citizens of Washington D.C. can’t even elect federal officers?” he asked. “Why are we fighting for freedom in Iraq when we’re not totally free right here in Alabama?”

Sharpton was not the only leader to speak out against the Bush administration during Jimmie Lee Jackson Day. Also part of the activities was a re-enactment march from Zion United Methodist Church to the Perry County Jail, the same march made by protesters the night Jackson was shot. Leading the re-enactment march was Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, a pivotal figure in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, its former president, and leader of the “Bloody Sunday” march.

“There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” Lowery said in a brief speech following the march, “but we have weapons of mass destruction right here in America. Our minimum wage is a weapon of mass destruction. People cannot live on $5.75 an hour. 44 million Americans with no health insurance is a weapon of mass destruction.”

Both Lowery and Sharpton called on their listeners to continue fighting for justice and equality, to follow in the footsteps of men like Jimmie Lee Jackson.

“Today is a comma,” said Lowery. “If you see a comma in a sentence, that means there’s something to follow. And we are prepared to follow, in the footsteps of the movement. We have a challenge to finish the unfinished task.”

“I hear people talk about civil rights with the phrase ‘back in the day,’ like it was a fashion,” said Sharpton. “Civil rights is not a style. They’re not a fad. They’re something you fight for until you get ’em!…Things have gotte nmore sophisticated. We’re not fighting Jim Crow now, we’re fighting James Crow Jr., Esq. But Crow couldn’t stop our granddaddies and our daddies. We’ve been beating him a long time. And we ain’t tired yet!”

Jimmie Lee Jackson Day was sponsored by the Perry County Civic League, which is also celebrating its 40th anniversary. League President and Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner, Jr. said attendance throughout the day’s events was strong.

“We are very pleased with the turnout in both our morning and afternoon services,” he said. “We are happy with the success of the whole day’s events.”

Turner explained that Sharpton’s delayed arrival was due to his plane touching down in Birmingham later than expected.

“We were told he would be arriving in Birmingham at 11:55,” Turner said, “but his plane did not land until 1:17, after which he had a police escort to Marion.”

That escort whisked Sharpton away shortly after his address, preventing him from issuing further comment.

Correction: Civil Rights leader and Jimmie Lee Jackson Day speaker James Orange, whose imprisonment in Perry County Jail helped spark the Marion march 40 years ago, was misidentified as James Owens in a story published in the Saturday edition. The Times regrets the error.