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James Orange, civil rights activist, dies at 65

  • Story Highlights
  • Orange jailed in Alabama in 1965 for getting students to help voting rights drives
  • In march to support him, a man was killed, leading to 'Bloody Sunday,' famed march
  • After successful Selma-to-Montgomery march, Voting Rights Act signed into law

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Rev. James Orange, a civil rights activist whose 1965 jailing sparked a fatal protest that ultimately led to the famed Selma-to-Montgomery march and the Voting Rights Act, died Saturday at Atlanta's Crawford Long Hospital, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said in a statement. He was 65.

Orange was a native of Birmingham, Alabama, "who resided in southwest Atlanta for four decades while fighting the good fight for equality and social justice for all mankind," said the SCLC, a civil rights organization.

Orange was arrested and jailed in Perry County, Alabama, in 1965 on charges of disorderly conduct and contributing to the delinquency of minors for enlisting students to aid in voting rights drives.

As rumors spread that Orange would be lynched, civil rights activists organized a march to support him. However, the marchers clashed with Alabama state troopers during the February 18 demonstration, and a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot in the stomach.

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"I could hear the singing and the commotion," Orange told CNN last year. "Once the tear gas was flying and the shots started, I couldn't tell what was going on."

Jackson, 26, died eight days later. Witnesses said Jackson's grandfather, who was active in the voting rights movement, had been beaten by troopers, and Jackson was trying to get him to the hospital.

The anger resulting from Jackson's death led civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to organize the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, voting rights march. The first attempt at that march was broken up by club-wielding state troopers and sheriff's deputies, a melee that became known as "Bloody Sunday."

"Jimmie's death is the reason that Bloody Sunday took place," Orange said. "Had he not died, there would never have been a Bloody Sunday."

On the marchers' third attempt, in March, they made it to Montgomery. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August 1965.

In May 2007, a former Alabama state trooper, James B. Fowler, now 74, was indicted in Jackson's shooting, one of several cases involving the deaths of civil rights activists that prosecutors have revived in recent years.

Fowler has claimed he shot Jackson in self-defense, but Orange and Elijah Rollins, who was upstairs at a nearby cafe when the shooting took place, last year disputed claims that protesters were throwing rocks and bottles at police.

"Not one bottle or brick was thrown back at the troopers," said Orange, adding that film and a Justice Department report back that up.

He said he was glad Jackson's case had "never been forgotten."

Orange was a project coordinator at the SCLC from 1965 to 1970, then later became a regional coordinator with the AFL-CIO in Atlanta, the SCLC said. Since 1995, he had served as the founder and general coordinator for the M.L. King Jr. March Committee-Africa/African American Renaissance Committee, Inc., which coordinated commemorative events honoring King and also promoted industry and commerce among Atlanta, the United States and South Africa.

Orange is survived by his wife, five children and two grandchildren, the SCLC said. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Saturday. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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