Ashley Bell of Gainesville, the regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, was in good company when he received the Drum Major for Justice Award in Marion, Ala., on Sunday, Feb. 17.
The award, which is given by the Perry County Civic League, has previously been given to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It honors Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist and Baptist deacon from Marion who was killed by an Alabama state trooper during a voting rights march in 1965.
“Being able to go back to Perry and talk about my work that we’ve tried to do together throughout the Southeast to address rural poverty is one that I’m humbled to talk about and even more so to do at the beginning of a remembrance ceremony of Bloody Sunday, that I learned about as a child,” Bell said Friday, Feb. 15. “To find myself here, in a place where Dr. King spoke and to receive an award that Dr. King received over 50 years ago is one that is humbling and one that I am eager to continue to work to earn.”
On Feb. 18, 1965, about 500 people left Zion United Methodist Church in Marion to walk to the Perry County Jail, where civil rights worker James Orange was being held. Along their walk, they were met by police officers, sheriff’s deputies and Alabama state troopers, who began beating the protesters. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and died from his injuries a few days later.
Jackson’s death was part of the inspiration for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in March 1965. In 2007, the former trooper who shot Jackson was indicted, and in 2010 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
Bell has been to Perry County for Bloody Sunday memorial events in the past but has also been there in a professional capacity through his work with the Rural Strong program, which connects rural business owners with the resources they need, such as loans or business counseling.
Bell visited Marion in July 2018 to meet with local business owners and community members, and he said the Rural Strong program hopes to encourage communities like Perry County to start local businesses and employ people there.
“There’s been sort of a silent disregard to poverty in rural areas that needs to be addressed,” Bell said. “Addressing rural poverty begins with making sure that these communities have access to resources to support entrepreneurs to create jobs there.”
He said that through talking with people in Perry County, he learned the community lacked some basic resources — there is no shoe store, for example — and people felt that all the focus on high-tech jobs was hurting smaller communities that could benefit from having other industries or retail.
“The power of entrepreneurship and self-determination, those are our biggest weapons against poverty in rural areas,” he said.