Seeking closure

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2007

MARION &8212; For Cordelia Herd Billingsley, news accounts of a Perry County grand jury to be convened this week brought renewed hope.

They will consider Wednesday whether or not to indict a former Alabama State Trooper who has admitted shooting her father some 42 years ago.

She was four years old when James Bonard Fowler shot Jimmie Lee Jackson inside Mack&8217;s Caf/ during a melee, breaking up a night march outside a church in Marion.

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Her lasting memory of her father was when her mother lifted her to see him lying in his casket. Billingsley said that if her father had lived to be a part of her life, things would have been different.

Billingsley&8217;s mother Addie Brown Herd, was Jimmie Lee&8217;s high school sweetheart. In 1965 Jimmie Lee was home after serving in the Army. His grandfather, Cager Lee, was in his early 80s, and had been advocating equal rights for blacks in rural Alabama since the 1950s, area residents said.

The night of Feb. 18, 1965

There was a voter registration mass meeting at Zion Methodist Church to bring attention to the fact law enforcement was becoming more aggravated by the &8220;outside agitators.&8221; Following the meeting, a night march to the Perry County Jail was planned. The troopers were there to halt the march.

The atmosphere was tense. Activist James Orange was held in the county jail, and the late Albert Turner Sr. received a tip that Orange was going to be turned over to Klansmen that night and killed. To counter the Klan&8217;s plan, Turner helped organize the candlelight march that drew about 500 protesters, chaos ensued.

There were reports of newsmen assigned to cover the mass voter registration meeting who had their camera lenses &8220;sprayed with black spray paint,&8221; according to sworn statements.

Willie Nell Avery is now the Perry County Registrar.

In 1965 she was one of the hundreds denied the right to vote, however, her persistence paid off and she was finally registered. An insurance agent at the time, Avery recalled being out collecting premiums near Highway 14, when she saw something that made her go home.

Avery suspected the troopers were bringing the uniforms to &8220;deputize the local Klan.&8221; She said she went on to the church, where she was expected to lead songs. It was standing room only.

Avery said the violence started before all of them could get outside the church. The atmosphere, she recalled, was loud, dark and frantic. The non-violent philosophy was set aside temporarily in the name of survival.

Avery said Jimmie Lee wasn&8217;t at the church. He wasn&8217;t a civil rights leader. He was trying to protect his mother, Viola, and his 82-year-old grandfather, who&8217;d sought refuge inside the caf/. The truth about what happened inside the caf/ is what the grand jury will have to consider, the district attorney said.

Wanting Closure

For Billingsley and her family, the shot fired inside Mack&8217;s Caf/ changed their lives forever. In a 2005 interview, Fowler admitting he shot Jimmie Lee. Billingsley said it was &8220;guilt eating away at him.&8221;

Fowler said he&8217;s had to go into debt to hire Montgomery attorney George L. Beck. He has said the shooting was an accident.

In an interview from his Geneva home, Fowler told The Selma Times-Journal,

&8220;it was an accident.&8221; He predicted he would probably get indicted, saying &8220;somebody&8217;s probably got political aspirations. The cards will be stacked against me.&8221;

Fowler said he was a young, new state trooper and was in school at Gunter Air Force Base when they got a call.

Fowler said he has received calls from the BBC and the Swedish Broadcasting Company, and several newspapers interested in his case.

Billingsley said she needs closure because she needs something to tell Dedrick Lee, her 13-year-old grandson.

EDITOR&8217;S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on the effect of the 1965 death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Perry County. The civil rights-era case was re-opened and prosecutors plan to present new evidence to a grand jury today.