Annie Lee Cooper, civil rights legend, dies

Published 6:46 pm Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Annie Lee Cooper, a civil rights hero, died Wednesday afternoon at Vaughan Regional Medical Center. She was 100 years old.

Cooper became known worldwide in 1965 for a confrontation with Sheriff James G. Clark.

Historian David J. Garrow tells the story in his book,  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” which was released in the 1970s by Yale University Press.

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According to Garrow’s documented version, Cooper had stood in line for hours outside the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote. Clark ordered the 224-pound, 54-year-old African-American woman to go home. Cooper clamed he poked her in the back of the neck with either a billy club or a cattle prod. Cooper turned and delivered a right hook to the sheriff’s jaw. He dropped to the ground.

John Lewis, who later would become a Congressman, said at the time, “Clark whacked her so hard we could hear the sound several rows back.”

Deputies wrestled Cooper down on the ground, arrested her, charged her with assault, and attempted murder.

Newspapers from the time said she was detained in jail for 11 hours. Sheriff’s deputies released her because they were afraid Clark would come back in and beat her.

As she sat in jail, Martin Luther King Jr. made a historic speech in Brown Chapel. Here’s what he said about Cooper:

“This is what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and they haven’t told the press the truth about it. Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t have turned around and hit Sheriff Clark just to be hitting. And of course, as you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark. At that moment, he was engaging in some very ugly business-as-usual action. This is what brought about that scene there.”

Yusuf Salaam, a former city councilman and state representative, recalled politicking in Ward 8 for the position of councilman. Some of the residents in the ward held coffee meetings for him. He went to a lady’s house he did not know. He heard her story. It was Cooper.

He promised her then he would have the street that ran in front of her house named for her. During his first year as councilman, he did just that. Annie Cooper Avenue runs off Division Street in East Selma, where she had lived.

Salaam called Cooper a “freedom fighter” who cared more about the movement and its ideals than she did for self-aggrandizement.

“We will miss her sacrificial spirit,” he said. “She did not rest on her laurels.”

Earlier this year, Cooper celebrated her 100th birthday with a celebration. Councilman Corey Bowie of Ward 8 honored her and others by planting a tree in a park in Ward 8. Bowie called her a “trailblazer.”

“Today, the community and the world lost a great pioneer,” Bowie said just an hour after learning of Cooper’s death. “She made it better for everyone and she will be truly missed.”