Witnesses recall the events of violent night
by John Fleming
Editor at large
May 17, 2007 | 1666 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The incident in Marion that led to the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson is well documented in history books. Most accounts say a peaceful nighttime march turned into a melee when street lights went dark, and law enforcement and local thugs waded into the crowd, beating people with fists and billy clubs.

Jackson was shot soon afterward, after state troopers followed some marchers who fled into a nearby café. Historical accounts say Jackson was shot while trying to protect his mother. James Bonard Fowler and fellow troopers in their affidavits say Jackson was in a struggle with Fowler when Fowler shot him.

Bob Fry, a former FBI agent, told The Star on Tuesday that he arrived in Marion not long after the riot. One of his agents had phoned him and told him what had happened.

Fry said he spoke to Marion’s police chief at the time, T.O. Harris, and suggested that Harris arrest a person who had beaten a television reporter. He also walked over and had a talk with a state trooper who had a head wound.

“I think his name was Higginbotham,” Fry said. “I do remember going over and talking to him. He told me he got hit with a Nehi pop bottle, got 11 stitches in the head as I recall. His head was all bandaged up. I don’t know if he knew who hit him.”

One of Fowler’s colleagues, R.C. Andrews, wrote in a statement about the incident that a Trooper Higginbotham was beaten with drink bottles.

A little-known report written by Harris at the time and obtained recently by The Star, provides an account of the march and the ensuing violence, but does not refer to the Jackson shooting.

Harris’ account does not say anything about the street lights going out. It mentions that he and fellow officers used clubs to push the marchers back toward Zion Methodist Church, where the march originated, but he writes that “I saw no one around me swinging clubs.” The account goes on to say that he arrested one white man, George Baker, who was “interfering with the Negroes who were going back into the church.”

He adds that there was a lot of “screaming, cursing, and abusive, defiant words coming from some of the Negroes as they were being pushed back.”

Harris filed a separate report about the beating of NBC reporter Richard Valeriani, who was sent to the Perry County Hospital for injuries to the head.

Harris writes that a city police officer, J.D. Perkins, and a state trooper “did not see Valeriani attacked but did see the person making the attack immediately afterward and took his club and sent him home.”

Harris says that he visited Valeriani later in the hospital, and also started his investigation, which resulted in an arrest at 7 a.m. the next day.

He writes that Sam Dozier and Woodfin Nichols, both white men, were arrested for assault and battery and that Redge Bearden, also white, was arrested for defacing property.

Other reporters on the scene were beaten that night, as well as their cameramen. Some cameras were destroyed, and the lenses of others were spray painted.

Reached at his home in Connecticut, Valeriani, who now works for the Web site The Huffington Post, said he has no recollection of Harris visiting him or apologizing to him.

He does say he remembers the attack.

“I remember that state trooper taking that ax handle away from the man who hit me,” said Valeriani. “He flung it up onto the city hall steps and it made this rattling sound. And the trooper said to this man, ‘you’ve done enough damage with this tonight.’”

A few moments later, Valeriani said, a man approached him as he was lying on the ground.

“He leans down to me and says, ‘Do you need a doctor?’ I felt the blood on the back of my head and looked at him and said, ‘yes, I think I do.’ So he says to me, ‘Well, we don’t have doctors for people like you.’”
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Witnesses recall the events of violent night by John Fleming
Editor at large

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