These Black Americans broke racial barriers. These are their untold stories.
Annie Lee Cooper did the unthinkable — she fought back — an act of resistance that turned her into an icon in the voting rights movement.
On January 25, 1965, Cooper was standing in line to register to vote when, according to historical records, Dallas County, Alabama, Sheriff James Clark ordered her to go home and hit her in the back of the neck with a baton. Cooper, a 224-pound woman, turned around and punched Clark in the face, knocking him to the ground.
At the time, Black Americans were mobilizing across the South for equal voting rights. Voter registration procedures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, limited office hours and long lines in states such as Alabama had made it nearly impossible for Black people to register to vote.
Cooper was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder for punching the sheriff, according to the Selma Times Journal. She was released from jail just after 11 hours for fear that Clark would try to hurt her, newspapers reported.
A photo of deputies restraining Cooper to the ground was published by The New York Times and news of the incident quickly spread through the civil rights community which celebrated her as a hero.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged Cooper during a historic speech while she was jailed.
“This is what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and they haven’t told the press the truth about it,” King said, according to the Selma Times Journal. “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.”
Cooper died in 2010 at the age of 100, and in 2014, Oprah Winfrey played her in the Oscar-nominated film, Selma.
Her legacy is still alive, Selma leaders say.
Yusuf Salaam, a former Selma councilman and state representative, said he met Cooper in the 1990s when he represented her neighborhood on the city council. The two worked together on a committee to improve the relationship between residents and city leadership. Salaam described Cooper as affable, sharp and intelligent. He recalled visiting her house on many occasions when she would cook collard greens and sweet potato pies.
Salaam told CNN he believes Cooper galvanized the voting rights movement because she stood up against a White sheriff — something many Black Americans were afraid to do in the Jim Crow South.
“It was risky, it was down-right life-threatening and dangerous,” Salaam said. “But she gave the formula for success. If the people had maintained that fear they would have been paralyzed.”
An earlier headline on this story had the wrong year of birth for Annie Lee Cooper. It was 1910.
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