May 7, 1955 – Reverend George Lee Shot for Helping Blacks to Vote in Belzoni, Mississippi

George Washington Lee was an African-American civil rights leader, Baptist minister, and owner of a grocery store for blacks. Along with Gus Courts, another black grocer, he co-founded the Belzoni chapter of the NAACP in 1953. Lee was assassinated in 1955 for organizing African Americans to try to register to vote.

George W. Lee (1904 – May 7, 1955), African American civil rights leader

George W. Lee (1904 – May 7, 1955), African American civil rights leader

The Reverend Lee had been working to register other African Americans to vote since 1953. Lee himself was the first black in memory to register to vote in Humphreys County, Mississippi (where blacks were a majority of the population but had been effectively disfranchised by provisions of the 1890 constitution, particularly due to white implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests).

Between them, Lee and Courts registered nearly all of the county’s ninety black voters in 1955.

Whites throughout the South were enraged by the previous year’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), ruling that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. They were determined to resist efforts at integration, and in July of 1954 founded the White Citizens Council, a network of white supremacist organizations. (After 1956, it was known as the Citizens’ Councils of America.) The group not only opposed racial integration of schools, but also voter registration efforts. Members used severe intimidation tactics including economic boycotts, firing people from jobs, propaganda, and violence against citizens and civil-rights activists.

Undeterred, Lee and Courts not only continued their work, but expanded it. Lee was a vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, which promoted self-help, civil rights, and social justice. In April, Lee spoke at the Council’s annual meeting, which drew a crowd of more than 7,000 to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. His speech reportedly “electrified” the crowd.

Less than a month after this speech, Lee was shot and killed when bullets were fired into his car, ripping off the lower half of his face. A few days before, Lee had received a threatening note demanding that he drop off the voting rolls. When NAACP field secretary for Mississippi Medgar Evers came to investigate the death, the county sheriff told him that Rev. Lee had died in a car accident and the lead bullets found in his jaw were dental fillings.

According to FBI records, efforts to bring murder charges against two members of the White Citizen’s Council stalled when the local prosecutor resisted taking the case further. No charges were ever brought. Rev. Lee had an open casket funeral, and the NAACP memorial service held in his honor brought more than 1000 mourners to Belzoni.

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