Voting Rights Act of 1965: Rev. George Lee Remembered

Belzoni, Mississippi, a small Delta town once known for Saturday night lynchings and shootings, survived a tornado after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re here in the Delta, far from the coast where they really got it. We didn’t have the hurricane, but we did have a tornado and it was pretty bad,” said the owner of a used car lot on the northern edge of this village cotton once known as “Bloody Belzoni”.

The subsequent Katrina winds and heavy rains, in fact, hurt most businesses in this community that has been rising slowly since the first days of civil rights violence.

In recent years, Belzoni leaders created a marketing plan, hoping to generate new business: colorful five- and six-foot acrylic statues of smiling catfish wearing polka dot bow ties herald Belzoni’s newly acclaimed status as the World’s Capital of the World. catfish.

Catfish are scattered around the center. And every summer there is a catfish barbecue and delta blues celebration.

For many Belzonians, memories of past violence will never fade despite marketing efforts, and it’s close to downtown, in a poor and vandalized neighborhood, where African Americans have placed a block of granite at the beginning of a street in the city. town.

Only “George Lee Avenue” is etched into the cold stone.

But this tribute is to a beloved leader who died a violent death fifty years ago for his right to vote.

* * * *

Rev. George Washington Lee, the first black person to register to vote in Humphreys County since Reconstruction, was shot and killed on a neighborhood street while driving his car on the night of May 7, 1955.

Some who knew Lee and have stayed to grow old in this Delta city say that their friend was a kind and courageous man who was brutalized and murdered by angry white men for his defense of the right to vote.

LEE AND THE SECOND of the main targets of the Belzoni Citizen Council, Gus Courts, lived and ran small grocery businesses. Citizens’ Councils were private Klan-influenced organizations formed in the Delta in 1954 to scare black citizens away from the polls and prevent integration from taking place.

Lee also preached, often using his pulpit and printing press to urge others to act and vote.

White officials once offered Lee protection on the condition that he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused.

At the head of the city’s new NAACP chapter, Courts was ordered by their banker to turn over all NAACP books and, when he refused, Courts was ordered out of town. But he stayed.

Once, a member of the Citizens Council gave Courts a list of ninety-five registered blacks in Humphreys County, who warned that anyone who did not remove their name from the voters list would lose their job. He later testified about his experiences before a Congressional Committee.

Both Courts and Lee had tried for years to pay election taxes in order to vote and were eventually allowed to sign the register only after the county sheriff feared federal prosecution. Choosing a nerd required a separate battle.

On the day of his murder, nearly a year after Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and three months before the lynching of Emmett Till in nearby Sunflower County, Rev. Lee visited Courts to discuss the latest warning.

Lee reported receiving a previous anonymous death threat demanding that he remove his name from the voting list. He told Courts that he had a strange feeling about this particular threat.

That night, as Reverend Lee was driving his car down Church Street in Belzoni, two gunshots shattered the nighttime stillness, and the minister’s Buick sedan veered onto the sidewalk and crashed into a log house.

With the lower left side of his face missing, the Rev. George Lee staggered into the wreckage, but died during transport to Humphreys County Memorial Hospital.

When the leader of the NAACP, Medgar Evers, arrived in Belzoni to investigate the murder of Rev. Lee, Sheriff Ike Shelton told him that Lee lost control of his car and died in the accident; the lead pellets found in the tissues of his jaw were dental fillings.

An autopsy was not necessary for the “freak accident,” Shelton said.

But at Ms. Lee’s insistence, two black doctors examined her husband’s body and reported that the tissues contained pellets “fired at point-blank range with a high-powered weapon.” They also found gunpowder burns.

Over the next few days, Evers and two national representatives from the NAACP met with eyewitnesses and the full story emerged:

Lee had been followed by three men in another car.

His right rear tire was punctured by a rifle shot and as he decelerated, the second car “moved in parallel and a shotgun shot him point-blank in the face. There were also descriptions of the three men, with provisional identifications.”

Evers always doubted that any FBI investigation would be carried out, as there was never any public report “not even a solid rumor” about what was in the report.

Rev. Lee’s murder was a cold-blooded response to demands for equal treatment from more blacks in Mississippi and was backed by the lies of the sheriff and local police, Evers later reported; Evers was assassinated ten years later on his driveway to Jackson by a member of the Klan Delta and a member of the Council of White Citizens.

Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, also a black leader from Mississippi recalled, “We felt we needed protection because the past had taught us that when a black man is murdered, don’t go to town if your skin is black.”

Yet surprisingly for one of the first times, no protection was needed at the public funeral that took place in Belzoni.

“There was not a white male on the streets on the day of the service, except for the press. There was a large black attendance at the funeral. This large presence of blacks and absence of whites marked a turning point,” Henry said. .

* * *

As Aaron Henry predicted, the murder of Rev. Lee became a critical turning point in 1955; His untimely death would help push for the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history, which guarantees millions of minority voters equal opportunities to vote. participate in elections and make their voices heard.

The VRA ended literacy tests, poll taxes, and other methods to prevent blacks from voting that had long poisoned the roots of this country’s democracy. In 1964, only 300 African Americans held public office nationwide, including only three in Congress.

But today, more than 9,100 black elected officials serve, including 43 members of Congress, the largest number to date, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., often called simply Inc.

The VRA also opened the policy to more than 6,000 Latino public officials, including some 260 elected at the state or federal level, with 27 in Congress. Native Americans, Asians, and others who have historically faced stiff barriers to full political participation have also benefited greatly.

However, violations of the VRA still occur and the United States has yet to achieve the constitutional goal of equal political opportunity.

Leaders of Inc. and others who support the reauthorization of voting rights point to three crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act that will expire in 2007 unless Congress votes to renew them:

* A requirement that states and local jurisdictions with a documented history of discriminatory voting practices submit planned changes to their election laws or procedures to the US Department of Justice or the US District Court. In Washington, DC for your prior authorization. A 1982 bipartisan congressional report warned that without this provision, discrimination would reappear “overnight.”

* Requirements that communities with concentrations of voters with limited English proficiency provide bilingual electoral assistance, including bilingual ballots, election materials, and poll workers.

* The authority to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections.

Inc. leaders and others involved in voting rights view these provisions as critical to ensuring fairness and equal opportunity for minorities in American politics:

“At a time when the United States is vigorously committed to promoting the ideal of multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq and around the world, we must ensure that legislators preserve and strengthen the tools necessary to ensure the continued success of democracy here at home. Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a first step. “

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