Kenneth Quinnell February 13, 2020
For Black History Month, the AFL-CIO is spotlighting various African American leaders and activists who have worked at the intersection of civil and labor rights, with a particular focus on voting rights. Without access to the ballot box and an assurance that everyone’s vote counts, civil and labor rights are among the first to be taken away from working people. Today, we’re looking at the Rev. George W. Lee.
In 1955, the murder of Emmett Till shocked the United States and was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. But Till wasn’t the only prominent murder of an African American in Mississippi that year and the murder of the Rev. George W. Lee not only informed the reaction to Till’s murder, but Lee’s murder was part of the pathway to the passage of the Voting Rights Act a decade later.
Lee lived in Humphreys County, which was only one county away from where Till was murdered later in the year. Before becoming an activist, Lee grew up in Edwards, Mississippi. His mother was an illiterate plantation woman who died when Lee was young. While living with his aunt, Lee successfully graduated high school, which was rare for Southern black men. He later worked in New Orleans before becoming a preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi, in the state’s delta area.
Poverty was high in Belzoni, and Lee worked hard to improve himself. He served as pastor at four different churches, opened a grocery store and his wife, Rosebud, ran a printing business out of the house. Lee was the first black person in Humphreys County to register to vote in recent memory. He and a friend Gus Courts, then co-founded a local branch of the NAACP. By 1955, Lee and Courts had registered nearly all of the county’s 90 eligible black voters.
But local whites, led by the notorious Citizens Councils were purging black people from the voting rolls through economic pressure, intimidation and violence. Many of Belzoni’s black citizens were pressured into dropping themselves from the voting rolls, but Lee and Courts stood firm. Lee was a vice president in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. The organization not only focused on improving the skills of black people in the state, but they also pursued voting rights and led a successful boycott of gas stations that discriminated against black people.
Before long, Lee had developed into a top-notch public speaker who rallied black voters with words like: “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.” The racists of Belzoni reacted just as strongly. Less than a month after Lee gave spoke those words at the Regional Council of Negro Leadership convention, he was murdered. Just before midnight on May 7, 1955, an assailant fired three shotgun blasts into Lee’s car and he died from the shots before he could be treated at the local hospital.
At the time Medgar Evers was a field secretary for the NAACP, and he was assigned to investigate the Lee murder. The work Evers did in this case was a springboard for his later civil rights activism. Evers found that Lee had received a threatening note to drop his voter registration three days before the murder. The autopsy found that lead pellets consistent with buckshot killed Lee, but the local sheriff claimed that the death was a traffic accident and that the lead pellets were “dental fillings” knocked loose during the car crash that ensued from the assault.
Much like Emmett Till later that year, Lee’s funeral was a media event for black newspapers. Rosebud Lee decided to hold an open-coffin ceremony. Black newspapers shared the photo of Lee’s mutilated corpse. When Till was lynched, his photo in black newspapers was an important part of spurring action in the civil rights movement. Lee’s funeral was a precursor to that type of communication to the public during the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists continued searching for evidence to pinpoint Lee’s killers, but the FBI investigation ran out of steam because potential witnesses were afraid to talk. No one was ever charged with Lee’s murder. Later, Lee’s partner Gus Courts was also shot, although he survived the assault.
The efforts of Lee (and Court) were important in showing how to register black voters in the South in the face of violent opposition. Rosebud’s decision to reveal the violence against her husband to the world would set the table for the successes of the civil rights and voting rights movements.