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 him home and struck him on the back of the neck with a baton. Cooper, a 224-pound woman, turned 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 a poll tax, literacy tests, limited office hours, and long lines in states such as Alabama made it nearly impossible for black people to register to vote.

According to the Selma Times Journal, Cooper was arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder for punching the sheriff. Newspapers reported that she was released from jail only 11 hours later for fear of trying to hurt Clark.

A photograph of the deputies restraining Cooper to the ground was published by The New York Times and news of the incident spread quickly through the civil rights community who celebrated him as a hero.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged Cooper during a historic speech while she was in prison.

According to the Selma Times Journal, King said, “That’s what happened today: Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and she didn’t tell the press the truth about it.” “Mrs. Cooper doesn’t kill Sheriff Clark just for the sake of hitting back. And of course, as you know, we teach the philosophy of not retaliating and not retaliating, but the fact of the matter is, Mrs. Cooper, If they did anything, it was instigated by Sheriff Clark. At that point, he was engaged in some very unsavory business-as-usual action. That’s what brought the scene there.

Cooper died in 2010 at the age of 100, and in 2014, Oprah Winfrey played her in the Oscar-nominated film Selma.

Selma leaders say his legacy still lives on.

Yusuf Salam, a former Selma councilman and state representative, said he met Cooper in the 1990s when he represented his neighborhood on the city council. The two worked together on a committee to improve relations between residents and city leadership. Salaam described Cooper as friendly, sharp and intelligent. He recalled visiting her home on several occasions when she would cook collard greens and sweet potato pie.

Salam told CNN she believes Cooper inspired the voting rights movement because she stood up against a white sheriff – something black Americans were afraid to do in the Jim Crow South.

“It was risky, it was absolutely murderous and dangerous,” Salaam said. “But he gave the formula for success. If people had retained that fear, they would have been paralyzed.

An earlier headline for this story had the wrong year of birth for Annie Lee Cooper. It was 1910.

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