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Arts & Life

An Eye Witness to History: An Interview with Vera Jenkins Booker

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers were set upon by Alabama state police troopers and a sheriff’s posse as they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery. The catalyst for these marches was the shooting death and funeral of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. I sat down and had a conversation with Vera Jenkins Booker, the nurse who tended to Jackson the night he was brought in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma fifty years ago…

Ingold: I understand that you are the nurse that tended to him while he was brought into the hospital. Is that right?

Booker:  Yes. I was the nurse on duty. On February 18, 1965. And as of last Wednesday the 18th it was 50 years ago

Ingold: So what was going on that night?

Booker: Well I had gone to work. I had worked 11-7. I was the 11-7 supervisor at Good Samaritan hospital at that time. And I got into work at always never late and had gotten my report and had gotten started to get ready to get around and make rounds. And got a call saying that they said they were bringing a young man from Marion who had gotten shot and they had been to a mass meeting I found out all that when I got there. I knew they were having a mass meeting in Marion at one of the churches. I didn’t know what church or anything.  And a few minutes maybe if I’m not mistaken it was probably about 11:20 or so they brought him In and I always thought the ambulance brought him in but they brought him all in and put him in the emergency room and I came on in and we had stalls in the emergency room at that time 4 of them and he was in the second one and put him in there on the table. He was in so much pain kind of grunting and all and they got him on the table and stretched him out. I got in there and said to him you are going be alright. I just really, really felt like Jimmy Lee would be alright. I think about that now when I’m talking about it and back then too. And he was a handsome young man 26 years old and just looked good and all but I pulled up his shirt and there on the left side of him was a mass of intestines that were out where the hole was where he got shot and he told me and he said I went in the café to check on my mother who had gone to the meeting and my granddad, granddad is old and I went in to check on them and when I went in it was just chaos and he said a state trooper shot me and I said shot you? And he said yeah I wasn’t doing anything I just was trying to find out where I knew they were at the church and everyone at the church was running and trying to take cover or whatever because evidently the state troopers had gotten after them you know and they went into the café in Marion and he said when I went in he had a laceration also on the back of his head about 2 inches long that’s in my nurses notes I still have a copy that’s in the museum here in Selma the good Samaritan long from 50 years ago are in that log. And he said doc and I tended to that because he was bleeding a bit. There wasn’t much blood on the intestines thing it was kind of dry like at that time you know from his shirt and all so I got some sterile saline which is salt water a bottle of it and took a 4 by 4 gauze and just drenched it in that and when I did that I got an pad and wet it real good and put it on it and made him flinch like it was cold like in February too so it was kind of cold and I just assured him and took his vital signs and all that I don’t have that in the nursing notes and I called Dr. Denkins William Denkins was the black doctor in Selma. Of course at that time we were segregated and he came in to attend Jimmy Lee and when he got there he looked at it and asked me to give him something for pain and I gave Jimmy Lee a fourth grain of morphine and mixed it with atropine which was one fiftieth and gave it to him and he kind of calmed him down you know and during that time waiting on the doctor because he didn’t live to far from the hospital we were talking and I was re assuring him and he told me that he was home on furlough he said to me that he was a deacon of his church in Marion and I just complimented him it and he was in the service he was in the army and he had come home on furlough  and that he had a little girl and she was 4 years old and I said what? I have a little girl that age. My baby is that age, my oldest is that age and at that time I had two children a boy and a girl. And he said yes ma’am and I said don’t worry you are going be alright and he said when I come back again I’m going get married to her mother.   I said you do that. You do that. That’s what you need to do is marry your baby’s mother. So they took him to X-ray and doctor came in and examined and told doctor Denkins the same thing he had told me and Dr. Denkins took him to x-ray and my notes they got a upright which is when they are trying to hold him up and sit him up right and also one flat one which is on the abdomen they took x-rays. And he had surgery that night, Jimmy Lee did and Dr. Denkins operated on Jimmy Lee and the next day which is on a Thursday night I was always off on a Friday and a Saturday night and go back on a Sunday and on early morning he was kind of drugging out and I told him I’ll see you Sunday night now you take care. I just knew he would be alright. It seemed like he was doing pretty good. So I was off Friday night and Saturday night and when I got there Sunday he was asleep and he said to me it was kind of a rough day but he was in a lot of pain and I’m sure he was. And after that after he did wake up I was doing rounds around the hospital and I just kind of wanted to make sure I checked on him again and I went back down, he was on the third floor and he was awake and I talked to him and his momma and all them had been checking on him but I never saw them because I was never there during the day and I told him you just hang on in there and you’ll be fine and then on Tuesday night he was getting worse. He was there he was kind of drowsy and sleeping  and had a temperature and they say infection but anyway they operated on him again and he died and like you said it’s been 50 years but he lived about 8 days. And he passed away and it really bothered me because I was just so sure he was going be alright and I had assured him of that until the end that you know you’re going to be alright. It kind of bothered me but I couldn’t do anything about it or anything and I went to his funeral the one they had here in Selma they had it at Brown Chapel Church and Dr. Landis who is gone now but was a pastor at Tabernacle and at that time Brown Chapel, tabernacle and the Baptist church were having the meetings here in Selma and I knew Dr. Anderson and he attended and there was people everywhere. Now they recorded it and I was thinking it was NBC but I’m not sure. I had stopped and talked to his mother, I had talked to his mother by phone but I hadn’t talked to her in person and I had called her after the funeral and talked to her once.

The 18th is kind of a bad day for me I don’t know why maybe because I’ve been talking about it a lot. I’ve just been talking about it and I just think it was that but it was just like I replayed the whole thing all over again that night 50 years ago. And at that time I was 29 years old I was 28 going on 29 and if I live to see the 13th of September this year I will be 79 years old.

But I can remember that February 18th 1965 like it happened yesterday.

Ingold: Did you have any idea how much of an impact his death would have on the movement that was going on at the time?

Booker: You know I didn’t and I’m going share this with you. I’m going say yes and no. And I had no idea it would lead to the Selma to Montgomery march in which they tried three times before they could really get to do it. My husband was teaching here and he marched the third day. He didn’t march that day bloody Sunday. It is amazing how people were there that evening after bloody Sunday and their arms bleeding and lacerations on their head and all and they had fallen and all and my thing when they called me to come in I remember asking the Sister  did anybody die did, anyone get killed. I was really worried about that because the bridge I just knew someone had pushed them old men but thank god it wasn’t. But I never, never but then I guess I did know it but I never knew. What Dr. King stood for, for how he was and knowing him but what he meant for and then he lost his life as you know from it I really feel it brought rise to a lot of things that we were not thinking it would.

Ingold: I understand you also testified in the case against James Bonard Fowler, the trooper who shot Jackson…

Booker: I did and I went to Marion Alabama and I know the D.A. very well, Michael Jackson and I think D.A. told me he was 4 or 5 years old when this happened, he was young. When he became D.A. he had been looking for someone that was there, you know what I mean like they say I was there and I went to see him one day. He was so glad to see me, and I rolled on in in my wheelchair. I said I came to talk to you and I knew he was trying to find somebody that was there because he was trying his best to get him indicted for the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson. I asked him, you know what, you wouldn’t guess what I did, I was a nurse, he knew I was retired, I said, I hear you’re trying to find someone who was there with Jimmy Lee Jackson , well I treated him. He looked at me with a smile and I said, you know what, you’re looking at the lady that was there when they brought him in from Marion that night of February the 18th 1965 shot on the right side and he had intestines the size of a small grapefruit sticking out of the hole. He just went back in his chair and I said yes and he asked if I would testify about it, I said yeah I remember it real well. He said you know, you wouldn’t believe a few minutes ago he told me he had been on the phone with the FBI was trying to find out and here you come. I guess the good Lord sent me and we tried to laugh it off and I explained to him what was what and he said will you testify, I said yes I will so we got ready and he called me and told me when it was going to be and my husband carried me to Marion it was on a Wednesday I believe in June and we got there, we got to the old Marion courthouse in the center and I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t get up the stairs there are no elevators there, he brought the grand jury downstairs to where I was and I went and testified to those people the whole story like I just told you and I came out, came out in the hall and when I came out in the hall this young man from Birmingham came to me and said, I’ve never seen anybody, Ms. Booker, that could remember at this age like you did, you went through that so fast it scared me. I said well, it was one of the things in my life as a nurse that touched me and so much happened out of that and it was important. But that is why he was indicted, as you know for six months and there was some people going around fussing that he didn’t get longer, but I felt like it was a kind of closure for a lot of us and especially for, his mother has gone on and his grandfather, but for his daughter. I never felt any way that I had done wrong, but I did feel like it really was a lifted burden for lots of people.

Keep an eye on APR.ORG for more stories about the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and all of our Civil Rights coverage from Alabama Public Radio.

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