The Rev. George Lee, voting rights advocate, murdered in Belzoni, Miss.
Some voters who stood in lines to elect this country’s first black president, may have spent some of the long hours remembering stories people who gave their lives for this moment.
The story of Rev. George Washington Lee of Belzoni, Miss., would surely be one to remember.
Lee, the first black person to register to vote in Humphreys County since Reconstruction, was shot to death on a neighborhood street while driving his car on the night of May 7, 1955.
Those who knew Lee — and there were many — say the Baptist minister was brutalized and killed by white men angered over his voting rights advocacy.
BOTH LEE AND his friend Gus Courts ran small grocery businesses and were targets of Belzoni’s White Citizen’s Councils, formally organized Klan-influenced organizations initiated in the Delta in 1954 to scare black citizens away from the polls and keep integration from taking place.
Lee often used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to take action and vote. White officials once offered protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused.
Heading the town’s new NAACP Chapter, Courts was ordered by his banker to turn over all NAACP books and when he refused, Courts was told to leave town. But he stayed. Courts once was handed a list of ninety-five blacks registered in Humphreys County by a Citizens Council member who warned that anyone not removing their name from the voting list would lose their job. He later testified about his experiences before a Congressional Committee.
Both men had tried for years to pay poll taxes in order to vote and were finally allowed to sign the register only after the county sheriff feared federal prosecution. Casting a ballot required a separate battle.
THE DAY OF REV. LEE’S murder, almost a year after Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and three months before the lynching of Emmett Till in nearby Sunflower County, he and Courts met and talked about the latest warning.
Lee had received an anonymous death threat demanding he remove his name from the voting list and told Courts that he had a strange feeling about this particular threat.
That night as Reverend Lee drove his car along Belzoni’s Church Street, two gun blasts shattered the night stillness, and the minister’s Buick sedan swerved over the curb and rammed into a frame house. With the lower left side of his face gone, Rev. Lee staggered from the wreckage but died as he was being driven to the Humphreys County Memorial Hospital. When NAACP leader Medgar Evers arrived from Jackson to investigate Lee’s murder, he was told by Sheriff Ike Shelton that Lee lost control of his car and died from the crash; the lead pellets found in his jaw tissues were dental fillings.
An autopsy was not necessary for the “freak accident,” Shelton said.
But at Mrs. Lee’s insistence, two black physicians examined her husband’s body and reported the tissues contained pellets “fired at close range from a high-powered gun.” They also found powder burns. Over the next few days, Evers and two national NAACP representatives met with eyewitnesses and the full story emerged:
Lee had been followed by three men in another car. His right rear tire was punctured by a rifle shot and as he slowed, the second car “pulled parallel and a shotgun was fired point-blank into his face. There were also descriptions of the three men, with tentative identifications.”
Evers always doubted that any FBI investigation took place, since there was never any public report “or even a solid rumor” as to what was in the report.
Rev. Lee’s murder was a cold-blooded answer to demands for equal treatment coming from more Mississippi blacks and was backed by the lies of the sheriff and local police, Evers later reported; Evers was assassinated ten years later in his Jackson driveway by a Delta Klansman and member of the white Citizens Council. Questions remain over Evers’ murder.
Aaron Henry,a popular civil rights leader (who lived long enough to die a natural death), asserted, “We felt we needed protection because the past had taught us that when one Negro is killed, stay out of town if your skin is black.”
But surprisingly, no protection was needed at the public funeral that took place in Belzoni.
“There wasn’t a white man on the streets the day of the service, except for the press. There was a great turnout of Negroes for the funeral. This large presence of Negroes and absence of whites marked a turning point,” Henry reported. As Henry predicted, the murder of Rev. Lee became a critical turning point back in 1955; his untimely death would help prompt later passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) — one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history, guaranteeing millions of minority voters the equal
VRA ended literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods of keeping blacks from voting that had long poisoned the roots of this country’s democracy. In 1964, only 300 African Americans served in public office nationwide, including just three in Congress. But recently, more than 9,100 black elected officials were serving, including 43 members of Congress, the largest number ever, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. often simply called Inc.
WOULD BARACK OBAMA know the story of Rev. George Lee. “Oh, I’m very sure he know this story,” said Margaret Block, the sister of civil rights advocate Sam Block and a civil rights veteran, herself.
“The story of Rev. George Lee is one that we simply do not forget. It is so important to this country’s history. And I’m very certain that our new president knows of Rev. Lee and much more about the brave men and women, black and white, who fought so hard for this day to come.”
Link to Mississippi Sovereignty Commission file — letter from NAACP to U.S. Attorney General with detail of Rev. Lee’s murder
Susan Klopfer, journalist and author, writes on civil rights in Mississippi. Her newest books, “Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited” and “The Emmett Till Book” are now in print. “Where Rebels Roost” focuses on the Delta, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore and many other civil rights foot soldiers. Emphasis on unsolved murders of Delta blacks from mid 1950s on…