Rev. George Washington Lee was a pioneering civil rights activist in the Delta whose unsolved 1955 murder illustrates the tremendous risks associated with advocating racial and political equality in Mississippi in the 1950s. Born in 1904, the son of a white father and a black sharecropper, Lee grew up in Edwards, a rural town about thirty miles west of Jackson. Lee’s mother died when he was young, and he was raised by an aunt until he graduated from high school. He moved to New Orleans and worked on the banana docks while he took a correspondence course in typesetting.
In the 1930s Lee returned to Mississippi, moving to the Delta town of Belzoni to become a preacher. Like most Delta preachers, Lee ministered to multiple rural congregations, at times juggling as many as four, and supplemented his income with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures. He and his wife, Rosebud, established a print shop in their home and ran a grocery store that catered to black customers. These enterprises gave Lee the personal contacts and the independent financial means to become a community leader and an early civil rights activist. Other early grassroots leaders such as T. R. M. Howard, Aaron Henry, and Amzie Moore were also businessmen.
Lee’s involvement with civil rights blossomed in the early 1950s as black Mississippians began pushing for equality. In 1953 he joined with his friend and fellow grocer, Gus Courts, to organize the Belzoni branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also became a vice president of the Regional Council for Negro Leadership, a Delta-based group founded by Howard that focused on voting rights and economic self-sufficiency.
By 1955 Lee had become perhaps the most visible civil rights leader in Humphreys County. Described by Jet reporter Simeon Booker as a “tan-skinned, stumpy spell-binder,” Lee regularly spoke about the importance of voting, predicting that if all the blacks in the Delta were to register, they could send an African American representative to the US Congress. He was among the first blacks to register to vote in the county since Reconstruction, and he helped to register nearly one hundred new black voters. At an April 1955 Regional Council rally, Lee told a crowd of nearly ten thousand, “Pray not for your Mom and Pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.” His “down-home dialogue and his sense of political timing,” Booker noted, “electrified” listeners.
Lee may have thrilled his supporters, but he also frightened and angered local whites, who vigorously defended voting as a whites-only privilege. Citizens’ Council members confronted Lee, demanding that he destroy his poll-tax receipts and refrain from voting. He not only refused but even sued the local sheriff after the latter stopped accepting poll-tax payments from prospective black voters.
On the evening of 7 May 1955 Lee was driving along a Belzoni road when a convertible pulled alongside his vehicle and a white gunman shot him in the face. He died on the way to the hospital. An autopsy reported that lead fragments filled Lee’s mouth and that his face resembled something that had “gone through a meat grinder,” but Humphreys County sheriff Ike Shelton insisted that Lee had been killed in a car accident and that the lead in his mouth must have been tooth fillings. “Negro Leader Dies in Odd Accident” read the headline in a Jackson newspaper the next day.
Lee’s murder outraged local blacks and activists throughout the state. The NAACP, led by its new field secretary, Medgar Evers, immediately launched an investigation and demanded that federal authorities get involved. Lee’s funeral attracted national attention as more than one thousand mourners (and readers of the Chicago Defender) viewed his mutilated body—Rosebud Lee had insisted on having an open casket. NAACP pressure prompted the federal Justice Department to investigate.
No one was ever charged with Lee’s murder. The FBI built a circumstantial case against two members of the Citizens’ Council, Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Jr., but the local prosecutor refused to take the case to a grand jury. Later that year, in another act of violence for which no one was convicted, Gus Courts was shot and driven from town.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Jack Mendelsohn, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice (1966)
- Mississippi Civil Rights Project website, mscivilrightsproject.org
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi (2004)