George W. Lee
|George Washington Lee|
George W. Lee
December 25, 1903|
Edwards, Mississippi, USA
|Died||May 7, 1955
|Cause of death||Assassination|
|Occupation||Civil rights leader; Baptist minister; grocer|
|Known for||Civil Rights Movement; Voter registration; NAACP; Regional Council of Negro Leadership|
George Washington Lee (December 25, 1903 – May 7, 1955) was an African American civil rights leader, minister, and entrepreneur. He was a vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and head of the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was assassinated in 1955 for organizing African Americans to try to register to vote. Since 1890 they had been effectively disenfranchised in Mississippi and in other states across the South since the turn of the century.
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 1903, Lee grew up in poverty in Edwards, Mississippi. His mother was an illiterate plantation woman married after Lee was born; his stepfather was abusive. After Lee's mother died while he was young, he was taken in by her sister. Lee graduated from high school, a rarity for blacks living in his circumstances. While eking out a rough living on the banana docks in New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied a correspondence course in typesetting.
During the 1930s, Lee accepted a call to become a preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi, where he led a Baptist congregation. 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 served as pastor at four churches and opened a grocery store. Lee considered both vocations to serve the African-American community. 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 in the early 1950s. As a part of the NAACP, Lee worked tirelessly in trying to register African Americans to vote.
Lee was the first black in memory to register to vote in Humphreys County, Mississippi (where blacks were a majority of the population but had been effectively disfranchised by provisions of the constituton of 1890, particularly due to poll taxes and literacy tests). 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, which were required for voter registration, they took him to court. Between them, Lee and Courts registered nearly all of the county’s ninety black voters in 1955. Whites were enraged by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, and were determined to resist efforts at integration. They founded the White Citizens Council, with chapters throughout counties in the Delta. Whites 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 wove together a message of self-help, business, and civil rights. It pressed for voting rights and social justice, organizing 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 7000 to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Simeon Booker of Jet (magazine), 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."
Death and investigation
Less than a month after this speech, Lee was killed in his car near midnight. A convertible pulled alongside Lee's car and an unidentified assailant fired three shot-gun blasts, shattering his jaw and driving him off the road. Lee died before he could be taken to the hospital. An autopsy extracted lead pellets from his face that were consistent with buckshot. The attack came days after he had received a threatening note demanding that he drop his name from the voting rolls. The sheriff, Ike Shelton, wanted to call the incident a traffic accident and close the case, claiming ed that they were dental fillings torn loose by the impact of the crash.
Howard, Evers, and others demanded a thorough investigation. The sheriff and governor spurned them but the U.S. Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, Jr. 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 the decision of his wife, Rosebud, to hold an open-coffin ceremony (Emmett Till's mother would do the same a few months later). 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 in August 1955, 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 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. Lee paved the way for great leaders to be born out of the African American community, he provided them with an opportunity that was second to none, because of his passion to have African Americans voice their opinion through the voting process. Lee will forever be a Civil Rights hero. His life also provided an illustration of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington that an economic foundation provided the necessary precondition to build a movement for political rights.
||This article includes a list of references, related reading or external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks inline citations. (April 2009)|
- David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "The Grim and Overlooked Anniversary of the Murder of the Rev. George W. Lee, Civil Rights Activist" History News Network, May 6, 2005.
- Beito, David and Linda (2009). Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03420-6.
- Jack Mendelsohn, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).