Leslie Burl McLemore, political scientist, civil rights activist, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University, and Jackson City Council president, has deliberately integrated the theory and practice of political change into his personal and professional lives. Born in Walls, Mississippi, on 17 August 1940 to Christine Williams McLemore and Burl McLemore, he attributes his earliest political consciousness to the influence of his maternal grandfather, Leslie Williams, a store owner. While growing up in the Jim Crow South, McLemore observed the influence Williams’s political acumen gave him within the white community. During McLemore’s years at Rust College in Holly Springs, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social science and economics, he was the founding president of the college chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1962, after leading local demonstrations for integration and access to the ballot, McLemore became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working on voter registration campaigns in Benton, Marshall, Tate, and De Soto Counties. As the northern regional coordinator for the 1963 Freedom Vote campaign, he was named to the executive committee of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. McLemore also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where the Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of the all-white delegation from the Mississippi Democratic Party.
McLemore earned a master’s degree in political science from Atlanta University and a doctorate in government from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where his dissertation, “The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: A Case Study of Grass-Roots Politics,” was the first formal study of the impact and influence of this local political movement. After postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University, McLemore moved into an academic career, teaching first at Southern University and then in 1971 moving to Jackson State University, where he founded the political science department. McLemore served as president of the Council of Historically Black Graduate Schools and as the dean of Jackson State’s Graduate School and founding director of the school’s Office of Research Administration.
As an academic, he focused his research on southern black electoral politics and held leadership roles in the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the Southern Political Science Association. Throughout his life McLemore has maintained his interest in the potential impact of political engagement in making substantive change. As he has noted, “We’ve done these great things as a people and as a country, but we are so inconsistent. Obviously, democracy is always evolving. One would hope that, a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, this democratic system we know now will be even better.” In support of this philosophy, McLemore has mentored young people through the Jackson Chapter of 100 Black Men. In 1997 McLemore and some academic colleagues founded the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, which hosts workshops, programs, seminars, and tours focusing on the civil rights movement and the creation of engaged, active citizens. The Hamer Institute works to engage schoolchildren, community members, teachers, and college faculty more directly in the work of democracy.
McLemore ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress from Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District in 1980. In 1999 he won a special election to fill a vacant seat on the Jackson City Council. He remained on the council for the next decade, holding the post of council president for five years and serving as the city’s acting mayor for two months in 2009 following the death of Frank Melton. McLemore has served on the board of the Mississippi Municipal League, as chair of the Leadership Training Council of the National League of Cities, and as interim president of Jackson State University. He retired from politics and teaching in 2009 to focus on his work with the Hamer Institute and on mentoring.
- Michelle D. Deardorff, Jeff Kolnick, T. R. M. Mvusi, and Leslie Burl McLemore, History Teacher (November 2004)
- John Hicks, Planet Weekly (3–9 March 2004)
- Leslie Burl McLemore, in Black Politics and Political Behavior: A Linkage Analysis, ed. Hanes Walton Jr. (1994)
- Leslie Burl McLemore, Negro Educational Review 40 (1988)
- Rachel Reinhard, “Politics of Change: The Emergence of a Black Political Voice in Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2005)