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The city of Marion has seen massive improvements to its historic architecture, but the fate of pivotal civil rights landmarks remains unknown.
Located in Alabama’s Black Belt, Marion is an often-overlooked spot in the state, despite its history as a hub for education and the civil rights movement. Marion is the birthplace of Samford University and Alabama State University, as well as the home of former Judson College and also the Marion Military Institute.
Main Street Marion is a local organization dedicated to revitalizing the downtown square and business corridor of the city, working as part of the non-profit Main Street Alabama.
According to Donald Bennett, Board President of Main Street Marion, the city’s history runs deep.
Marion was the location of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1964. In 1965, Marion hosted a march led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the height of the Selma Voting Rights Movement. The march started at Mt. Zion Methodist Church and was to end at the Perry County Jail, where a young civil rights activist, Rev. James Orange, was being held. During the march, Marion resident and local Baptist deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot by an Alabama State Trooper. Jackson died several days later.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a memorial service for Jackson.
Jackson’s death sparked the famous Selma to Montgomery march. The Selma march, combined with other events, eventually led to the passage of the Voting Rights Bill, signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
“It was the event that occurred here that triggered the march to Montgomery, and we’re starting to tell the whole story, the full story,” Bennett said.
Main Street Marion has renovated several buildings and commissioned artwork to depict the city’s history in the civil rights struggle, honoring leaders who were mobilized by the events in Marion.
Historic preservation is not the only priority of Main Street Marion. The organization has also worked to improve the roadways in the area, as well as develop an art center where local talent can be displayed. Main Street Marion works with local business owners to address the neglect and dilapidation of buildings in the downtown district.
“We want to work with the local businesses to enhance the businesses so more people will be drawn in,” Bennett said. “We offered a façade improvement grant where we would pay half if they wanted to fix the front of their building. In the last two years, we’ve done six buildings, coats of paints, and replaced awnings.”
Main Street Marion would also like to see the continued transformation of the old Perry County jailhouse into a civil rights museum. The jailhouse, which was the destination of the march in which Jackson was killed, is in need of restoration.
The renovation project was spearheaded by the late Billie Jean Young, a Judson College and Samford University graduate and Civil Rights icon.
According to Bennett, Young was able to secure $500,000 in grant funding for the jailhouse renovation, through the non-profit Beyond 50 Years. The project was stalled after Young’s death in March of 2021.
“Perry County owns that building,” Bennett said. "Any time any questions are asked about it, it’s either, ‘That project is not going to happen,’ or ‘Yeah, we’re working on it.’ Nothing has moved, and nothing is being done with it. We don’t even know where the $500,000 went. But now [the jail] is just sitting there.
“It should be a museum which would draw people in. It [should] have the history of Jimmy Lee Jackson and the events that transpired and showcase how that turned into the civil rights bill.”
Although 1819 News reached out to Perry County commissioners, no response was received by the time this article was published.
Despite the delays with the jailhouse, Main Street Marion has continued to renovate and improve the historical city and strives to highlight the city's rich history.
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