- Masters of What Would Not Be Discussed
[End Page 137]
When former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler was arrested in Marion, Alabama, for a forty-two-year-old murder, I was home in Uniontown, twelve miles east of there. Fowler shot Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18, 1965, as the voting rights movement coalesced in the Black Belt. Protestors at Marion's United Zion Methodist Church had intended to walk one block that night to the city jail where a civil rights organizer, James Orange, was held. Instead, they were beaten. Jackson was shot in the stomach while trying to stop the clubbing of his mother and elderly grandfather at a café where they tried to escape the riot. Jackson's death, days later, galvanized the movement to march from Selma to Montgomery on what became "Bloody Sunday." Fowler admitted to the shooting in 2005, believing he could not be prosecuted. In 2007, Jackson's cousin, deputy sheriff Carlton Hogue, booked Fowler on charges a mixed-race grand jury delivered to the state's first black district attorney.
Days after Fowler's indictment at the Perry County Courthouse—a particularly lovely Sunday morning—I joined my parents at their church in Uniontown. It was my father's church—one I'd visited rarely as a kid, twice in my twenties for my grandparents' funerals, and more frequently now that both of my parents were attending. We entered through the side door into the basement, which contained offices, classrooms, and a function hall. My father greeted the other aging congregants—"How y'all getting along this morning?"—as folks stopped for coffee and sausage balls. I watched him, nose-bandaged, dressed in a suit and tie, his brown leather-bound Bible tucked through with bulletins and pamphlets, as he stepped into a narrow room for Bible study. The men welcomed him with enthusiasm as the door closed.
My father had attended this church since childhood: the older folks remembered his youth, his stint as a sixteen-year-old gas station attendant around the corner, his parents' lives here, and their burials in Rosemount Cemetery. I followed my mother into the basement office where several women gathered. While upstairs in the sanctuary, they were not allowed to participate in the service. Downstairs, they ran the church, cared for one another, and kept the congregation going. As quickly as she deposited me—"This is my daughter, Dawne, who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts"—she left with my daughter Mae for her Sunday school classroom. I watched how the church enfolded both parents, and I envied their place in this constellation of people. I wasn't quite a stranger, but neither did anyone know me as anyone but the daughter gone up North.
I was standing at the room's perimeter when a woman sitting in the black leather office chair began a polite inquiry.
"Your mama says you're writing about the Cahaba?" Yes, I answered. I was home to witness its famous lilies bloom. But then I added, "I'm also following the Jimmie Lee Jackson murder trial," which became true only in that moment. [End Page 138]
My unexpected response caused a flicker in the conversation. The person who asked turned toward the oldest woman in the office. I suspected these women would not want to reexamine this era and in that pause I wondered, had I overstepped? When the older woman did not respond, the first said—to the room, but not specifically to me—that she had never known about Jackson's death. She had been too young then. At that moment, the older woman's husband shuffled into the office...