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The Grim and Overlooked Anniversary of the Murder of the Rev. George W. Lee, Civil Rights Activist

The FBI’s decision to exhume the body of Emmett Till has riveted attention on a notorious atrocity of the modern civil rights era. More Americans than ever have now heard the tragic story of the brutal slaying of the fourteen year old in August 1955. (See here and here ). Comparatively few, however, know that Till’s murder was one of several Jim Crow oriented murders in Mississippi that year.

Especially memorable was the murder of Reverend George W. Lee on May 7 of that year. The crime took place in Humphreys County, one county distant from the scene of the Till murder three months later. Lee’s death may be almost forgotten today but it was not at the time, particularly by civil rights activists. To them, it provided a grim illustration of Mississippi’s notorious record of racial injustice.

Lee was typical of an earlier generation of activists who came to civil rights after they had made a success in business. Like so many in this category, he came up the hard way through backbreaking work, thrift, and determination. Born in 1904, Lee grew up in poverty in Edwards, Mississippi. His mother was an illiterate plantation woman who was married to an abusive stepfather. After she died, her sister took the boy in. Somehow, Lee was able to graduate from high school, a rarity for blacks living in his circumstances. While eking out a living on the banana docks in New Orleans, he studied a correspondence course in typesetting.

During the 1930s, Lee accepted a “call” to become a preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi. The town was located in the heart of the Delta, where most blacks in the state lived, the majority in extreme poverty. Eager to improve himself at every opportunity, Lee rose to the front ranks of local black business and community leaders. He pastored four churches and opened a grocery store. In a back room of his house, he and his wife, Rosebud, set up a small printing business. They did a brisk business giving Lee enough resources to enter the battle for civil rights.

Lee proved just as determined to succeed in that arena as he had in business and religion. He was the first black in memory to register to vote in Humphreys County (where blacks were a majority of the population). In 1953, Lee and Gus Courts, another black grocer, co-founded the Belzoni branch of the NAACP. When the sheriff refused to accept their poll taxes, they took him to court. Between them, Lee and Courts registered nearly all of the county’s ninety black voters in 1955. Still enraged by the Brown decision of the previous year, however, members of the Citizens Councils were aggressively purging blacks from the voting rolls through intimidation and economic pressure. While many backed down, Lee and Courts stood firm.

Lee was a vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a leading black organization in the state. The Council weaved together a message of self-help, business, and civil rights. It pressed for voting rights and organized a successful boycott of gas stations that refused to install restrooms for blacks. The head of the Council was Dr. T.R.M. Howard, one of the wealthiest blacks in the state. Medgar Evers worked as an organizer.

In April Lee was one of the speakers at the Council’s annual meeting, which drew a crowd of more than seven thousand to the all-black town of Mound Bayou. Simeon Booker of Jet, observed how Lee’s “down-home dialogue and his sense of political timing” had “electrified” the crowd. “Pray not for your mom and pop,” Lee suggested. “They've gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.”

Less than a month after this speech, a convertible pulled alongside Lee’s car just before midnight. An unidentified assailant fired three shot-gun blasts shattering his jaw and driving him off the road. Lee died before he could make it to the hospital. The attack came days after he had received a threatening note demanding that he drop his name from the voting rolls. An autopsy extracted lead pellets from his face that were consistent with buckshot. The sheriff, who wanted to call it a traffic accident and close the case, claimed that they were dental fillings torn loose by the impact of the crash.

A few years earlier, these events might have ended then and there, but Howard, Evers, and others had different ideas. They demanded a thorough investigation. The sheriff and governor spurned them but the U.S. Attorney General ordered the Justice Department to look into the matter.

Lee’s funeral in Belzoni was a media event for black newspapers. A key factor in building interest was Rosebud Lee’s decision to hold an open-coffin ceremony (thus anticipating a similar decision by Emmett Till’s mother). Readers of the Chicago Defender could share her outrage by viewing a photo of her husband’s mutilated corpse. A subsequent NAACP-organized memorial service in Belzoni drew more than one thousand. This was a revolutionary event for the small rural Delta town, where whites had traditionally expected, and generally received, strict deference from the black majority. Howard and Roy Wilkins, the president of the National NAACP, shared the speakers’ platform. Howard said that some blacks “would sell their grandmas for half a dollar, but Reverend Lee was not one of them.”

Civil rights activists searched the Delta looking for evidence to find the killers. Medgar Evers, as someone later said, “cut his teeth” on the Lee case. He continually fed information to the press. Despite this, interest began to wane and the FBI investigation ran out of steam. In the meantime, agents had identified credible white suspects, and agents had opined that potential witnesses were afraid to talk. No charges were ever brought.

While the death of George W. Lee never generated the same outrage as the murder of Emmett Till, the consequences were genuinely important. The effect was not only to expose a national audience to the oppressive nature of Mississippi Jim Crow but to give much-needed momentum to the civil rights movement. Lee deserves to be remembered for other reasons as well. He exemplified an earlier generation of activists who used business success into a launching pad into civil rights. His life provided an illustration of Booker T. Washington’s dictum that an economic foundation provided the necessary precondition to build a movement for political rights.