JAG school students glimpse civil rights cases

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

1/27/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Students at the Air Force Judge Advocate General's School learned about the civil rights movement from a man who continues to fight for fairness.

Michael Jackson, district attorney for Alabama's Fourth Judicial District, told the students Jan. 16 how he closed the case on the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, 45 years after his death ignited the civil rights movement in Selma.

About 40 students and staff members met with Michael Jackson on Martin Luther King Day during the GATEWAY judge advocate advanced law and leadership course for majors Jan. 9-20 at Maxwell.

"Going to Selma on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a wonderful and meaningful way to honor King's legacy and truly understand the important role both Selma and Montgomery played in the Voting Rights Act, and the overall civil rights movement," said Maj. Cynthia Kearley, assistant course director.

For one student, the case is still relevant to reinforce the concepts of justice and fairness.

"Jimmie Lee Jackson's life was worth something, and justice was being denied," said Maj. Steven Snortland, a GATEWAY student and school staff member. "This is one of the reasons there is no statute of limitations on murder - ultimately the district attorney was able to arrive at some form of a just result in this case."

Michael Jackson reopened the case after state trooper James Fowler confessed to a journalist in 2004 that he killed Jimmie Lee Jackson during a civil rights protest march 45 years ago.

The civil rights march in Marion began peacefully in February 1965, but a riot developed. While police and state troopers confronted marchers, Jimmie Lee Jackson was stabbed and later died from his injury.

To protest his death, civil rights leaders organized a march from Selma to Montgomery. When violence broke out at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the event became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Outrage over the violence led participants to finish their march to Montgomery, drawing national attention to the cause and leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

After learning of Fowler's interview, Michael Jackson reopened the case.
In 2010 Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming the death was self defense since Jimmie Lee Jackson was reaching for the trooper's gun. Fowler served five months of his six-month sentence, released early due to health concerns.

Michael Jackson, who is not related to the victim, told the New York Times in November 2010 he was satisfied with the ruling. "Time was starting to run out," he said. "We wanted to make sure justice was done before he died."

The students' trip to Selma also included a stop at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center and a visit to Brown Chapel, the starting point for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. There, they spoke to a woman who had been involved in the civil rights movement as a child.

"At the end of the day, the movement simply meant she could live a normal life without being constantly told she wasn't worth as much as a white person," Snortland said. "She could use the same drinking fountain, go to the bathroom where white women could, eat at a lunch counter white men could and vote."

The trip to Selma was significant for him, and he encourages others to learn from those who made a difference.

"It's a living history that fades the longer you wait to experience it," Snortland said.