Herbert Lee was an early martyr in the Mississippi civil rights movement. A land-owning dairy farmer with nine children, Lee, an Amite County native, was a charter member of the Amite County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1953. Lee was a supporter of the students who started voter registration efforts in the McComb area in 1961, and he offered to drive organizer Robert Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) around and help him contact potential voters.
On the morning of 25 September 1961, Lee got into an argument with a white neighbor, E. H. Hurst, who was a representative in the state legislature, a member of the Citizens’ Council, and the father-in-law of Billy Ray Caston, who had assaulted Moses a few days earlier. Hurst then shot Lee, claiming to have acted in self-defense after he brandished a tire iron. Although there were numerous witnesses to the shooting, the local sheriff intimidated them into supporting Hurst’s story, and the local coroner’s jury refused to indict him. One witness, Louis Allen, later told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he had been forced to lie to the jury. Although Hurst was never charged, local whites retaliated against Allen by harassing and beating him. Then, on 31 January 1964 Allen, too, was gunned down. No one was ever charged in his murder.
Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of SNCC, the Congress of Federated Organizations, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party all cited Lee’s name in discussing the need to build on the sacrifices of older activists. A Delta Ministry building in Greenville was named in his honor. A 1963 SNCC film, We’ll Never Turn Back showed Lee’s large family, without their murdered father, as a living sign of the people whom the movement was fighting to serve.
- Kerry Bradford, “Terror in Liberty: Death and Civil Rights in a Mississippi Community” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1993)
- Civil Rights Teaching website, www.civilrightsteaching.org
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Bruce Hilton, The Delta Ministry; Mississippi Civil Rights Project website, www.mscivilrightsproject.org
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
- Northeastern University Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project website, nuweb9.neu.edu/civilrights
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)