Murder of Louis Allen
|Born||April 25, 1919
Amite County, Mississippi
|Died||January 31, 1964
Amite County, Mississippi
Cause of death
Louis Allen (April 25, 1919 – January 31, 1964) was an African-American logger and civil rights activist in the small town of Liberty, Mississippi who was shot and killed. It was more than two years after he discussed with federal authorities the murder of Herbert Lee, an activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, by E.H. Hurst, a white state legislator.
Allen and other witnesses yielded to pressure from armed white men at the inquest into Lee's death, and supported Hurst's claim of self-defense. Hurst went free. After discussing the event with federal authorities, Allen was harassed by white law enforcement, and boycotted from his job. He was murdered at his property the night before he planned to depart to live with relatives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Investigations since 1994 by a Tulane University historian, the FBI, and CBS News 60 Minutes suggest that Allen was murdered by Daniel Jones, then Amite County's sheriff. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
Louis Allen was a native of Amite County, Mississippi, where he was born in 1919. In those years, it was majority black, with an economy based on agriculture. Population declined markedly as many blacks left the area in the Great Migration to the North and Midwest, in search of better jobs and living conditions.
After his return, Allen worked as a logger and farm laborer. Allen was married and had four children with his wife, including a daughter and a son Henry (called Hank).
Murder of Herbert Lee
Louis Allen started to participate in efforts to restore civil rights in Mississippi for African Americans. Activists had been pursuing court cases against the disfranchisement of blacks since 1890, for instance. Beginning about 1961, activists had begun efforts to register black voters and protest against segregation to gain public support. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began to organize people in the state.
On September 25, 1961, Louis Allen and about 11 other men witnessed the murder of Herbert Lee, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by E.H. Hurst, a pro-segregation legislator in Mississippi's House of Representatives. Lee was 52 years old, married with nine children. Hurst had followed Lee in his truck to the cotton gin in town. When a coroner's inquest was conducted hours later, Allen and other witnesses were pressured into giving false testimony, supporting Hurst's claim of shooting Lee in self-defense. Armed white men were present in the court room. Hurst was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing.
Allen told fellow activists what he had seen. He discussed Lee's murder and the inquest with Julian Bond, a SNCC organizer. (Bond was elected in 1965 to the Georgia state house, serving numerous terms, and repeatedly to its senate, before becoming president of the NAACP in the late 20th century.) Bond encouraged Allen to tell his story to federal authorities but, in the charged atmosphere of Liberty, Allen was at high risk if this became known.
"He lied [at Hurst's inquest] because he was in fear of his life", Bond later said. "If he had implicated a powerful white man in a murder of a black man, he was risking his life...I tried to encourage him to tell the truth, but you know, it was like saying, 'Why don't you volunteer to be killed?'"
Learning that a federal jury was to be called to consider charges against Hurst, Allen talked to the FBI and the United States Commission on Civil Rights to see if he could get protection if he testified. An FBI memo reported that he "expressed fear that he might be killed", but the Justice Department said it could not give him protection.
In the small town of Liberty, rumors of Allen's consultation spread among the white population. They blackballed him, using economic blackmail to deprive him of work. When Allen reported death threats, the FBI – which had limited jurisdiction over civil rights cases at the time – referred the matter to the Amite County sheriff's office. The FBI did so despite believing, as an agent wrote in a memo, that "Allen was to be killed and the local sheriff was involved in the plot to kill him."
White hostility in Liberty against Allen intensified. On one occasion, as Allen tried to register to vote at Amite County Courthouse, he was shot at by an unknown assailant. (Most blacks were prevented from registering in those years of disfranchisement before passage of laws in 1964 and 1965 to enforce their constitutional rights.)
In another incident, a white businessman threatened Allen, saying, "Louis, the best thing you can do is leave. Your little family—they're innocent people—and your house could get burned down. All of you could get killed."
Allen allegedly became a target of harassment by Amite County's newly elected sheriff, Daniel Jones. In a later interview, Allen's son, Hank, described Jones as "mean", recounting numerous incidents where the sheriff arrested his father on trumped-up charges. Hank Allen remembers seeing his father being beaten by Jones outside his home. Jones broke Louis Allen's jawbone with a flashlight. He arrested Allen and made him spend a night in the county jail.
When he got out, Allen filed a complaint against Jones to the FBI. He summarily testified before a federal grand jury, which was all white because blacks had been prevented from registering and voting, so could not serve on juries. His complaint was dismissed.
In fear of his life, Allen arranged to move in with relatives in Milwaukee. On the night of January 31, 1964—the night before his planned departure—Allen was ambushed at the cattle grid outside his property. He was killed by two shotgun blasts to the head. His body was eventually found by his son Hank.
No investigation into Allen's murder was conducted until 1994. That year, Plater Robinson, a history professor at Tulane University, began examining the case files. Robinson's research in the following years pointed to Daniel Jones as a likely suspect in the killing. In 1998, Robinson conducted a tape-recorded interview with Alfred Knox, an elderly black preacher in Liberty. Knox said that Jones had recruited his son-in-law, Archie Weatherspoon, to "kill Louis Allen". When Weatherspoon refused Jones' request to "pull the trigger", Jones allegedly killed Allen himself. Both Knox and Weatherspoon are since deceased.
In 2007, the FBI reopened Allen's case, and identified Jones as their prime suspect. His father was a high-ranking "Exalted Cyclops" in Liberty's chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. FBI documentation from the 1960s claimed that Daniel Jones was himself a Klan member.
In April 2011, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes broadcast a report about the Allen case. Correspondent Steve Kroft had traveled to Liberty to interview local residents about the case. He was largely met with silence. Kroft interviewed former sheriff Daniel Jones on his property; the elderly man denied killing Allen, and he invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about his alleged Klan membership.
Legacy and honors
- Bertha Gober's song, "We'll Never Turn Back," referred to Lee.
- His son, Herbert Lee, Jr., became active in the civil rights movement in 1965, at the age of 15.
- Cold case: "The murder of Louis Allen", 60 Minutes (CBS), 10 April 2011
- "Louis Allen", U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [database on-line], National Archives and Records Administration, hosted at Ancestry.com, 2005. Original data: Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, 1938-1946 [Archival Database]; ARC: 1263923. World War II Army Enlistment Records; Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 64; National Archives at College Park. College Park, Maryland, U.S.A.
- Louis Allen Murdered (Jan), CRMVet.org (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement)