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James E. Orange, Voting Rights Pioneer, dead but never forgotten

by Tara Young // Published March 4, 2008
The Rev. James E. Orange, an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., union and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizer died last week in Atlanta.

I met Rev. Orange, two years during the SCLC Women's annual voting rights tour. Evelyn Lowery, who is the wife of Rev. Joseph Lowery and organization's founder, sponsors a tour twice a year. The voting rights tour travels throughout the south, and stops at a dozen or so places, popular and not so popular for the struggle. One of those places, I never heard about before the trip was Perry County jail. Perry County is a small quaint country town located in west Central Alabama, but in 1965 it had racial issues and did not want African-American voting or organizing.

In 1965, Rev. Orange, who was a teenager that year become a symbol of the change the southern leaders wanted to suppress. He was arrested for registering African Americans to vote, and during his stint in jail the teen was beaten, but the community heard rumors he was lynched and murdered. As Rev. Orange told us this story the crowd stood still, capturing every powerful word. He continued, the community was outraged, and they walked to the small jailhouse protesting and demanding his body be released.

The troopers used force to disband the crowd, but another teenager, Jimmie Lee Jackson stood up to protect his mother and grandfather. He was shot and he died eight days later. The community had reached a tipping point. The crowd wanted to march using the body of the dead teenager as an example of hate, and hopefully force the governor to get involved. Many historians say this incident in front of Perry County jail was the birth of the Selma-Montgomery march.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed. At the funeral for Rev. Orange, Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "Without Orange, for example, there might have been no march from Selma to Montgomery, beginning a train of events that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965." He went on to say, "The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson killed by an Alabama state trooper -- while protesting the incarceration of Orange, who had been jailed for registering new voters" is regarded as one of the triggers for that famous march.

Subsequently, Rev. Orange, who was sitting in jail bruised and beaten, was released after Jimmie was shot. Rev. Orange is gone, but not by a lyncher's rope or a racist's bullet. At 65 years old, he died of natural causes and lived a full life, empowering, educating and organizing others. Rev. Orange, who stood six feet tall, weighed 300 pounds and spoke with a husky baritone voice, was a gentle Civil Rights giant.

After hearing his presentation in front of the Perry County jail, which is now a museum, and speaking with him one-on-one, I know this Civil Rights giant will be missed. But I want to assure the family: Rev. Orange will never be forgotten. He lives in my heart and the time I shared with him vividly lives in my memories.

My memories were made possible by the SCLC Women's organization. Go and create some memories for yourself. The next tour begins Saturday, March 8. For more information, check out the SCLC Women's website at www.sclcwomeninc.org.