James Bonard Fowler (September 10, 1933 – July 5, 2015) was an American policeman who was a significant player in escalating the acute racial conflict that led to the Selma to Montgomery marches in the American Civil Rights Movement. As a corporal in the Alabama State Police in 1965, he shot and killed an unarmed black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a killing that went without justice for 45 years. He was convicted of manslaughter decades after the incident.
He was also under investigation by the FBI for the 1966 shooting death of a second black man, Nathan Johnson, shot one year after Jackson.
Shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson
On the night of February 18, 1965, around 500 people left Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama and attempted to peacefully walk to the City Jail about a half a block away where a young Civil Rights worker was being held. The march was to protest his arrest and sing hymns. They were met by a crowd of Marion City police officers, sheriff’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers. In the standoff, streetlights were abruptly turned off (Some sources say that they were shot out by the police.) and the police began to beat the protestors. Two United Press International photographers were beaten by the police and their cameras were smashed and NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized.
26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola Jackson and his 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee and others ran in to Mack’s Café pursued by about 10 Alabama State Troopers. Police clubbed Cager Lee to the floor and his daughter, Viola rushed to his aid. Jimmie Jackson went to his mother's aid and was shot twice in the abdomen by Fowler. He died on February 26, 1965.
Fowler claims that he acted in self-defense after Jackson grabbed his gun from its holster.
This incident provided the primary catalyst for the first Selma to Montgomery march that occurred a few days later on "Bloody Sunday", March 7, 1965.
A grand jury declined to indict Fowler in September 1965, identifying him only by his surname ("Fowler").
Interviewed some time after the incident, Fowler stated:
I don’t remember how many times I pulled the trigger, but I think I just pulled it once, but I might have pulled it three times. I don't remember. I didn't know his name at the time, but his name was Jimmie Lee Jackson. He weren't dead. He didn't die that night. But I heard about a month later that he died.
After the shooting, Fowler returned to his duties as a State Trooper. He was transferred to Birmingham, Alabama, and promoted. He states that he never got so much as a letter of reprimand.
On May 10, 2007, 42 years after the homicide, Fowler was charged with first degree and second degree murder for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and subsequently surrendered to authorities.
Fowler pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter on November 15, 2010. Mr. Fowler apologized for the shooting but insisted that he had acted in self-defense, believing that Mr. Jackson was trying to grab his gun. Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison and was released early after serving 5 months due to health problems which required surgery.
Shooting of Nathan Johnson
In 2011, FBI officials announced that they are seeking information about the May 8, 1966 death of 34-year-old Nathan Johnson. Johnson had been arrested for suspicion of drunken driving on US Highway 31 and was fatally shot, allegedly by Fowler, at the Alabaster, Alabama Police Department. At the time, press quoted authorities as saying Johnson had grabbed a billy club from Fowler and was attacking him when the officer shot Johnson twice in the chest.
Dismissal from State Police
Fowler was dismissed from the state police in 1968 for severely beating his supervisor.
Fowler died of pancreatic cancer on July 5, 2015 in Geneva County, Alabama.