Annie Lee Cooper was an activist for racial equality who was instrumental in the Selma Voting Rights Movement in 1965. Many people weren’t aware of her efforts until Oprah Winfrey portrayed her in the Academy Award-winning 2014 film Selma. Cooper is remembered today for punching a racist sheriff in the face and for playing a major part in assisting Black Americans in gaining the right to vote.
Cooper, who was born in 1910 to a family of ten children in Selma, Alabama, dropped out of seventh grade and fled to Kentucky to live with her sister. She returned to Selma, Alabama, in 1962 to care for her ailing mother. She was horrified to learn that she would not be able to register to vote upon her return. She teamed up with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to try to register voters in 1963, but her employer found out about her involvement and dismissed her.
Cooper eventually found work as a clerk at a motel and joined the civil rights movement, which was dedicated to advocating for equal rights and treatment of African Americans in the United States.
Cooper tried to register to vote in Selma again in January 1965 at the Dallas County Courthouse. That’s when she was apprehended by racist Sheriff Jim Clark, who had a reputation for being violent. As sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, he frequently detained and beat nonviolent demonstrators while keeping Black people out of polling booths.
Cooper had been waiting in line for hours outside the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote on January 25, 1965, when Sheriff Clark told her to return home. In 2010, Cooper told the Montgomery Advertiser, “I was simply standing there when his officers urged a man with us to move, and when he didn’t, they tried to kick him.” “That’s when (Clark) and I got into it.”
Cooper said Clark poked her in the back of the neck with a billy club or a cattle prod, according to historian David J. Garrow in his book “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Cooper, 54, then turned around and landed a right punch to Clark’s jaw. He dropped to the ground as a result.
“Clark struck her so hard we could hear the sound several rows back,” claimed John Lewis, who eventually became a Congressman.
Cooper was taken into custody by deputies, who charged her with criminal provocation. She was held in jail for 11 hours before being released because deputies were afraid Clark would return and beat her.
Martin Luther King Jr., who had arrived in Selma with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to conduct a voting rights campaign, gave a landmark address in Brown Chapel while she was in jail.
“Here’s what occurred today: Mrs. Cooper was in that line, and they haven’t told the press the whole story.” Mrs. Cooper would not have hit Sheriff Clark merely for the sake of hitting.
“Of course, we teach a concept of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth is that Mrs. Cooper was provoked by Sheriff Clark, assuming she did anything at all.” He was committing some heinous business-as-usual behavior at the time. This is what caused the incident there.”
Cooper’s actions, along with those of others, were essential in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Cooper told Jet magazine a few weeks after the incident, “I try to be nonviolent,” but “I really can’t guarantee I wouldn’t do it all over again if they treat me brutishly like they did this time.”
Cooper died in November 2010, just months after turning 100 years old. Apart from Winfrey portraying her life, she has a boulevard named after her. Annie Cooper Avenue in East Selma, where she had lived, is located off Division Street.
Representative Lewis, whose legacy continues on, hailed Cooper as “upfront, charming, and…absolutely courageous.”