A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Jimmy Lee Jackson was 26, on February 18th
1965, when a state trooper slammed him
against the cigarette machine in a dark café
where he and the other voting rights marchers
sought refuge. Where exactly was I, that night,
three days past my thirteenth birthday, when
the streetlights went out in Marion, Alabama?
Perhaps I was engrossed in history homework,
or dreaming of stealing a kiss with Peter backstage
after the school play, when Trooper Fowler fired
the fatal shots making Jimmie Lee a martyr
on the road to Selma.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was not
among the martyrs, or history, we were studying
in our classrooms full of white girls, daughters
of working class Catholics, well protected
in our corner of Wilmington, while black citizens
and clergy from city churches set out to join
the Selma Campaign. Ms. Lillian, one of these saints,
would teach me a chapter of Delaware history
I’d missed: how the National Guard patrolled
her streets in ’68, so we could get to school,
our fathers to work, and our suburbs rest in peace.
Half a century later, an obituary: one James
Bonard Fowler ̶ Jimmie Lee’s executioner, stirs up
these histories. I see the ex-trooper finally served
a measly six-month sentence in 2010, after
he dogged a reporter to claim he killed
the unarmed marcher in self-defense. In his story
I trace the contrails of white rage ̶ careering
from workplace assault to Vietnam valor to heroin
trafficking, for which he served more time
than for killing Jimmie Lee. You’d think by now ̶
after Charleston and Ferguson, after the litanies
of named victims: Trayvon and Michael, Freddie
and Tamir ̶ we would have cornered this hate
like you’d stalk a mountain lion menacing the city.
When will we hear who is my neighbor?
for real, unmask the parallel lives we’ve led
and re-write these histories, starting
with why … and why not?
Copyright 2019 Kathleen O’Toole