Rev. George W. Lee: Voting Rights Activist
“Pray not for your mom and pop, they’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.” —Rev. George Lee, Annual meeting for the Regional Council of Negro Leadership
Born in 1904, George W. Lee grew up in poverty in Edwards, Mississippi. After the death of his mother, Lee still managed to graduate from high school, a rarity for rural blacks at the time. While working on the banana docks in New Orleans, he studied a correspondence course in typesetting. It was during the 1930’s when Lee accepted his calling to become a preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi.
A savvy businessman, Lee exemplified an earlier generation of activists who solidified successful businesses and then used this as a launching pad for community activism. As the Pastor of a Baptist Church, an operator of a printing press, and an active member of the NAACP, Reverend George Lee made his mark on the community once referred to as “Bloody Belzoni.” He was also the first African-American to register to vote since Reconstruction in Humphreys County, where blacks were a majority of the population. In 1953, Lee and Gus Courts co-founded the Belzoni branch of the NAACP. As early as 1954, Rev. Lee was heavily involved in the local voter registration drives. Working along side Courts, who was elected NAACP president, they successfully registered 92 new African-American voters. Both Courts and Lee also ran small grocery stores.
After years of attempts, both Courts and Lee were allowed to pay poll taxes and sign the register, once the county sheriff feared federal prosecution. George Lee also served as the vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, a leading black organization advocating a message of self-help, business, and civil rights. Headed by T.R.M. Howard, one of the wealthiest blacks in the state, the Council staged a successful boycott of gas stations that refused to install restrooms for blacks. Medgar Evers worked as an organizer.
In response to their voter registration efforts, Lee and Courts soon became prime targets of the Belzoni Citizens’ Council. Refusing to bow down to intimidation, Lee once refused an offer of protection extended by white officials on the condition that he cease his voter registration efforts. Similarly, Courts was ordered by his banker to turn over all NAACP books or leave town. Courts stood his ground, and went on to testify before a Congressional Committee about voter intimidation by the Citizen’s Council and his experiences.
Almost a year after Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and three months before the lynching of Emmett Till in nearby Sunflower County, Reverend George Lee was gunned down in his car on the night of May 7, 1955. When NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers came to investigate the murder, Sheriff Ike Shelton informed him that Lee died from a car crash and that the lead fillings found in his jaw tissues were dental fillings. Shelton insisted that an autopsy was not necessary. An examination of Lee’s body by two black physicians revealed that two to three rifle shots were fired, with one puncturing Lee’s right rear tire, the other shot fired at point-blank range into the cab, ripping off the lower left side of his face. Rev. Lee staggered from the wreckage, but died shortly thereafter during transportation to the Humphreys County Memorial Hospital.
Rev. Lee’s widow, Rosebud Lee, prophetically decided to hold an open-coffin ceremony for her late husband. This decision created a huge media event for black newspapers, planting the seeds for a similar decision by Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother. An additional memorial service organized by the NAACP drew more than one thousand people to this small rural town. Many consider Lee to be the first martyr of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Although no one was ever convicted for this murder, FBI records reveal that a circumstantial murder case was built against two suspects. However, a local prosecutor refused to take the case to a grand jury. These men, Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Jr., both members of the white Citizen’s Council, died in the 1970’s.
After Lee’s death, Gus Courts continued to experience economic boycotts by wholesale suppliers prodded by the Citizen’s Council. By November of 1955, pressure and intimidation effectively reduced the number of blacks registered to vote in Humphrey’s County to a meager two people. On November 25, 1955, Courts was shot and wounded while in his grocery store. No arrests were ever made, even though a bystander had taken down the license plate of the car from which shots were fired.
Presently, the local African American community has placed a granite block at the beginning of a street near the downtown area, to honor this local hero, whose death ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Beito, David T. and Linda R., 6-6-2006. The Grim and Overlooked Anniversary of the Murder of the Rev. George W. Lee, Civil Rights Activist
Beito, David T. and Linda R., T.R.M. Howard: Pragmatism over Strict Integrationist Ideology in the Mississippi Delta, 1942-1954 in Glenn Feldman, ed., Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South (2004), 68-95.
Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994).
Klopfer, Susan. 6-6-2006. Bloody Belzoni in Where Rebels Roost… Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited
Klopfer, Susan. Rev. George Lee’s Murderers Never Caught
Mendelsohn, Jack. The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).
Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995).
Whitaker, Hugh Stephen. 6-7-2006. A Case Study in Southern Justice: The Murder and Trial of Emmett Till Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.2, pg. 189-224 (2005).
This profile is reprinted from the Mississippi Civil Rights Project.
Grade Level: 7-9, 10-12, Adult
Time Period: 1950 -1974