Annie Lee Cooper did the unthinkable — she fought back — an act of defiance that made her an icon of the voting rights movement.
On January 25, 1965, Cooper was in line to register to vote when Dallas County, Alabama Sheriff James Clark ordered her to go home and hit her on the back of the neck with a baton, according to historical records. Cooper, a 224-pound woman, turned and punched Clark in the face, knocking him to the ground.
At the time, black Americans were mobilizing in the South for equal voting rights. In states like Alabama, voter registration processes like poll taxes, literacy tests, limited office hours and long lines made it nearly impossible for blacks to register to vote.
Cooper was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder for assaulting the sheriff, the Selma Times reported. She was released after 11 hours in jail amid fears Clark would try to harm her, according to newspaper reports.
The New York Times published a photo of lawmakers pinning Cooper to the ground, and news of the incident quickly spread through the civil rights community, which has made her a hero.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Cooper acknowledged as much in a historic speech while she was in prison.
“Here’s what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down the line, according to the Selma Times, and they haven’t told the media the truth,” Kim said. “Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t turn around and hit Sheriff Clark just to get hit. Of course, as you know, we teach a philosophy of no revenge and no return fire, but the truth of the matter is, Mrs. Cooper, if she did What, would be pissed off by Sheriff Clark. At that moment, he was engaging in some pretty ugly business as usual. That’s why there was that scene there.”
Cooper, who died in 2010 at the age of 100, was played by Oprah Winfrey in the Oscar-nominated film “Selma” in 2014.
Selma leaders say her legacy lives on.
Yusuf Salaam, a former Selma city councilman and state representative, said he met Cooper in the 1990s, when he represented her community on city council. The two work together on a committee to improve the relationship between residents and city leadership. Salam described Cooper as affable, perceptive and intelligent. He recalled making several visits to her house to make kale and sweet potato cobbler.
Salam told CNN that he believes Cooper sparked the voting rights movement because she stood up against white sheriffs — something many black Americans are afraid to do in the Jim Crow South.
“It’s risky, it’s downright life-threatening and dangerous,” Salam said. “But she gave a formula for success. If people keep having this fear, they’re paralyzed.”
An earlier headline on this story incorrectly stated Annie Lee Cooper’s birth year. That was 1910.