Vox Populi

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Kathleen O’Toole: Among the Martyrs

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

Jimmie Lee Jackson (1938 – 1965) was an African American civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama and a deacon in the Baptist church. On February 18, 1965, while participating in a peaceful voting rights march in his city, he was beaten by troopers and shot by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler. Jackson was unarmed and died eight days later in the hospital.

One comment on “Kathleen O’Toole: Among the Martyrs

  1. Madeleine Mysko
    January 21, 2019

    I’m grateful to find this strong and prophetic poem today. This poem calls me to find the courage to really listen to the saints among us, to seek their truth.

    Liked by 1 person

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