My trip to Alabama

This past weekend I had a very enlightening time in Alabama. I was grateful to have participated in a Conference at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute that asked the main question: “A Single Struggle?” (second from bottom). And I saw the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (bottom photo). After presenting on a chapter from my master’s thesis entitled “The Export of Jim Crow,” I resolved to try and visit Marion, Alabama, home of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot on February 18, 1965 by an Alabama state trooper for defending his mother while she, himself, and his grandfather were planning to register to vote. So many people like Jimmie Lee Jackson have died for the right to vote. Some people will argue that my voting for Green Party or Independent Party candidates is a vote thrown away or a wasted vote, however people have died for the right to vote, and for us to change the definition of what a COUNTED vote means. Often times since 1965, blacks have voted and it has never counted. However we live in a time where things are changing rapidly, and I’m praying that one of them be this simple-minded dependence on the oppressive two party system that a colleague of mine said (Andre Key) is like switching chairs on the Titanic. Like the young activists of the 1960s, I’m crazy enough to believe that we can work to dramatically change this society and see the end of the oppressive two party system. I am so grateful to see that the will of the anti-war Democrats prevailed today in the failure of Pelosi’s deplorable Iraq War supplemental that would have given $172 billion more dollars of oppressive occupation, that would only exacerbate the issues that the programs (bells & whistles) that Pelosi attached that addressed the needs such as food stamp funding and Katrina relief. They can address those needs without this supplemental and today we are shown that Democrats and Republicans can agree and perhaps override a Bush veto. On another note, my trip to Alabama was enlightening. The first day I arrived in Birmingham, I noticed the Civil Rights Institute is across Sixteenth Street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (bottom photo), the same church that was bombed in 1963 and killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. I believe Denise McNair was a childhood friend or acquaintance of Condoleezza Rice who grew up in Birmingham. While in Birmingham, I could not help but think how Rice and Angela Davis grew up in the same neighborhood, Dynamite Hill, as an awesome conference host Sylvea Hollis ( informed me. I thought a lot about how Condoleezza Rice is betraying the strong legacy of her father John Rice, who was such a positive black male role model not only in Birmingham as a Sunday School Superintendent, but also in Denver as a Dean at the University of Denver who led protests against the Vietnam war. I wonder how contrived his death happened, especially since it was right at the time that Bush announced Rice’s role in his adminstration as National Security Adviser. How can two women with such fundamentally different political philosophies (Rice an avowed capitalist, Davis an avowed communist) come from the same neighborhood of the same city? How does Angela Davis reconcile her unique philosophy with that of the conservative environment in which she grew up? I quoted Angela Davis in my talk at this conference and was pleased to do so. In fact, I was surprised to learn from Sylvea that her mother passed away earlier this year. Davis said that racism was responsible for the ideological production of the communist [in the 50s and 60s], the criminal [with Willie Horton by Bush in 1988] and the terrorist [by Bush right now]. Margaret Wilkerson writes a similar statement about Lorraine Hansberry in her analysis of Hansberry’s Les Blancs: “The play forces a reassessment of the term “terrorist,” a meaningless label which masks the desperation and sometimes the inevitability of violence” (21). Hansberry, Wilkerson, and Davis have all rightfully and very significantly pointed out the MEANINGLESSNESS of the term “terrorist.” In my talk at this conference, I basically tried to prove how the notion of a terrorist did not exist, mainly relying on the evidence provided by Anthony Arnove in his text “The Logic of Withdrawal,” where he writes that the idea that the attackers are coming from outside Iraq is false. I compare this argument to one made by white segregationists that the Freedom Riders who protest racial segregation are mainly outsiders. This is false. Raymond Arsenault in Freedom Riders talks about the Jackson Non-Violent Movement which consisted of local Jackson residents. This proves that the main protesters were not “oustide communist infiltrators” as was a common belief, but were local people who were tired of living in a racially segregated society and decided to do something about it. There are other notable people, very influential to me, who came from Birmingham. Condoleezza Rice, of course (mainly because her rearing within an activist tradition that betrays her originating oppressive foreign policy right now), Angela Davis of course (for her observation about racism producing the communist, criminal, and the terrorist), Margaret Walker (for her epic novel, Jubilee and her amazing set of essays edited by Maryemma Graham called On Being Female, Black, and Free), Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Driver, whose poetry collections such as We a BaddDDD people inspire me), Willie Mays, and A.G. Gaston who have accomplished phenomenal feats. Birmingham has produced powerful women. On the day after I presented, I drove on I-65 South to Route 22 and took Route 22 West to Selma. What a drive. It was not too bad, less than two hours. I arrived in Selma within two hours. I went there to visit the National Voting Rights Museum (third photo from bottom) in downtown Selma that is right around the corner from the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge (fifth photo from the bottom). It is over this historic bridge that the original march from Selma to Montgomery was planned, after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, however Alabama state troopers waited for these nonviolent marchers immiediately on the other side on March 7, 1965, and proceeded to attack the crowd of nonviolent protesters, as detailed in Henry Hampton’s film Eyes on the Prize. On arriving at the National Civil Rights Institute, I met a very helpful curator, Kimberly, who works as an assistant to Attorney Rose Sanders who runs this special museum. In it, they have information that no other museum have and in fact right now are fighting to preserve local control over such information rather than allowing federal control of the special material they have. Kimberly says that the area has a Jubilee celebration every year around the first week in March to commemorate this Bloody Sunday and the important legacy of voting rights that it left. Some of what this Institute has inspires me on the creative project I am now working on Jimmie Lee Jackson. On the second floor of this museum they have the actual bed that the wounded Jackson made his final transition in (fourth photo from the bottom). When I saw this room and was about to step towards the center of this room, Kimberly said, “I wouldn’t do that.” I asked why, and she said its not exactly stable. She said earlier how people have cut three of the four support beams that basically bolster the Museum from dropping into the Alabama River that the Edmund Pettus Bridge crosses. This was made especially clear when you walk away from the street towards the back of the museum and you notice the floor decline a bit. Kimberly said that decline only began after the support beams were cut. I thought that was absolutely crazy. It was apparent to me right then that the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute needs support. I was glad I could give what I can, however I implore readers of this blog to contribute more to sustain the important information this Institute allows. This institute has information that you cannot find anywhere else. At this institute, I was able to see the jail cell in which Bernard Lafayette and others were detained, and read and transcribe the affidavit of the Alabama state trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Fowler, who claims rather ludicrously that he ended up shooting Jackson when he said Jackson “hit him [Fowler] across the head coming toward me, and on the next blow which struck my hand the gun fired.” Most eyewitnesses say that Fowler clearly shot Jackson from a distance. This should make for an interesting creative project. The main lesson of which to learn from is: MAKE YOUR LIFE COUNT. Certainly in the grand scheme of things, Jimmie Lee Jackson did just that in defending his mother. I am grateful to have this more complete look at his life from this Institute. Please support them. Their website is Please support them. After crossing the historic Edmund Pettus bridge, I noticed and had to take a picture of the civil rights memorial mural with graffiti-style renderings of Jackson and James Reeb (sixth photo from bottom). I thank Kimberly for giving me a complete look at the museum & institute, as well as Sylvea for a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. After spending time in Selma, I took Route 80 WEST to County Road 45 NORTH, which led me straight into Jimmie Lee Jackson’s hometown of Marion, Alabama. I wonder if this town is named after the notorious doctor, J. Marion Sims whose invasive animalistic treatment of black slave women led to the study of gynecology. This is horrifically detailed in Terry Kapsalis’s Public Privates and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid (Thanks to Imani Perry for getting me Kapsalis’s book and congrats to Ms. Washington on her National Book Award). Sims worked in Alabama and…well, anyway, I was struck that County Road 45 was named after Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mentor, Albert Turner, Sr, as their memorial highway. Upon stopping the car to take a picture of the sign, I noticed a small turtle (second photo from very top photo) and could not help but pick it up and carry it to the other side of the road. I could not help but think that this is very symbolic of the work that many African Americans had done in getting their own rights in many ways; their activism basically work to pick up the slow turtle representing the social order of the status quo and place it safely on the other side of the road before it gets crushed by some inconsiderate cause. I was fascinated that when I picked up the turtle, it retreated so quickly into its shell. I’m sure its okay now, since I made sure he was pointed in the direction he was aiming for in the middle of the road. It is so important to respect God’s creatures. I saw that turtle as a foreshadowing of how the people of Marion, Alabama, would literally pick me up and bring me so much closer to finishing this important project I’m working on now on Jimmie Lee Jackson. What I was able to do for that turtle is what the very special people in the small Alabama town of Marion, were able to do for me in bringing me closer to primary documents that reveal more information about Jimmie Lee Jackson. I got directions from Kimberly to take County Road 45. I was told to take 45 to a courthouse, and look for a plaque also with information on it, of Jimmie Lee Jackson. I didn’t get to the courthouse before I decided to stop and ask for directions at a local laundromat, Mack’s Laundromat. I met avery helpful man and owner of a laundromat named McCoy Stephens (“Mack” for short) who said that in fact he went to Lincoln High School with Jimmie Lee Jackson and graduated from high school one year ahead of him. Another helpful man happened to walk in and was in the same high school class as Mr. Stephens, Mr. Willie Bryant, who happened to know a man who was in the cafe in which Jackson was shot (fourth photo from top). Mr. Bryant said I should talk with this man who was actually one who pulled the officer off of Jimmie Lee Jackson before he was shot. I was so grateful for this information. It is remarkable to me how I believe God will use the animal kingdom for symbols to remind us that he looks out of us. Every day. That turtle was a symbol of God’s eye and it was a symbol representing myself, and how the helpful hands of the community will help me reach the other side OK. Another group of people that helped incredibly were the Christians (third photo from the top photo). I found that their last name is so fitting with all the help they provided me in getting not only the booklet but also putting me in contact with Dr. Jerildine Melton, who was also at . I met Ms. Christian at Mack’s Laundromat, who Mr. Mack said, had a book or a rare booklet on the entire Jimmie Lee Jackson incident. After talking with Mr. Mack and Mr. Bryant about Jimmie Lee Jackson, I asked Ms. Christian if I could make a copy of that rare booklet, and she said yes but after she was finished with her laundry, which would be in the next two hours. I took that time to visit the center of the small town of Marion and see Zion Chapel Methodist Church (sixth photo from top), exact church where Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, and grandfather ran from the Alabama state troopers. I first parked right next to the church, then I took a photo of the plaque that is directly behind the church and to the right (this is the top photo of this post). I then took a walk from the Church to two other plaques down the road that are dedicated to James Orange and Albert Turner, Sr. Right next to these plaques I noticed the Perry County Jail, which reminded me of how obsessed this society is with prison and incarceration. So much so that certain people just assume it and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I tried to retrace the steps of Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother and grandfather by walking from the Zion Chapel to where the cafe he ran to (named Mack’s Cafe, interestingly enough) once stood. Its a downward slope. I guess where Mack’s Cafe once stood, I saw pure shrubbery. Just green woods where a brutal killing took place. I proceeded to walk down the slope to the bottom of the hill, then back up, where I eventually drove to the first hospital that Jimmie Lee Jackson was taken (I asked a local shopowner where Perry County Hospital once was). He directed me to take a left at the next stop light. I did so, then I came across what said Perry County Nursing Home (fifth photo from top). I wasn’t sure if this is where the shopowner directed me, but I took a picture of the Nursing home anyway. When I returned to the Laundromat, I asked Mr. Mack if Perry County Nursing Home is where Perry County Hospital once stood, and he said yes. This is significant because after being shot, Jimmie Lee Jackson was first taken to this hospital but because it was believed that because he was “agitating,” he was refused medical care, and had to painstakingly wait an extra number of hours before he could be treated which only aggravated the infection that killed him. He had to be driven to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, however by the time he got there, Jack Mendelsohn writes that the doctor said the infection had spread so much that even though Good Samaritan was able to perform surgery within hours of his being shot, it still probably caused the shock that he went back into on February 25, 1965, that preceded his death. After I was able to return to Mack’s Laundromat, I accompanied Ms. Christian to a more rural part of Marion to her humble home where I met her husband, had an edifying discussion on the election, and was able to talk with Dr. Jerildine Melton about the events at Zion Church on the night of February 18th. She said that after the service by Reverend James Orange, that night, there was “a sea of blue” waiting outside to stop the local blacks from registering to vote. That sea cascaded and ended up killing Jimmie Lee Jackson. I asked Dr. Melton what she thought Jimmie Lee Jackson would have us learn from his life, and she replied “stand up for what you believe.” I hope my creative project reflects this and I am grateful for the immense help of the Birmingham, Selma, and Marion communities in getting Jimmie Lee Jackson’s voice. -RF.

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.