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Excerpt from "Where Rebels Roost
, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited"
M. Susan Orr-Klopfer, with Fred Klopfer, Ph.D., and Barry Klopfer, Esq.
BY MID 1961, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching Mississippi with the arrival of Freedom Rides. As these volunteers moved through the South, challenging segregated bus seating, restaurants, and restrooms in the cities, another murder occurred outside of the Delta in the small town of Liberty.
The Murders of Herbert Lee and Lewis Allen
Farmer Herbert Lee, 52, was shot and killed by E.H. Hurst, a white member of the Mississippi Legislature, on September 25, 1961 in Liberty. Lee was a father of nine children. Hurst was never charged with the crime, and black witnesses were pressured by the sheriff and others to testify that Lee tried to hit Hurst with a tire tool. They testified as ordered and Hurst was acquitted in an Amite County trial held in a room full of armed white man, the same day as the killing. Hurst never spent a night in jail.
One day before Lee’s murder, Bob Moses had invited John Doar of the U. S. Department of Justice to McComb to hear directly from blacks involved in the McComb movement, including E. W. Steptoe, the region’s NAACP leader, who never left his house unarmed. Steptoe told Doar “Every Negro in Amite County wants to register to vote, but they’re just afraid…. If Negroes voted, we wouldn’t have any trouble.”
As organizer of the first local NAACP chapter after reading about Brown, Steptoe said that armed whites, led by a deputy sheriff, broke up the group’s third meeting. His uncle had been so frightened that he ran into the woods and stayed there for a week, living on raw food. When Steptoe’s uncle reappeared, he left the county.
Doar asked Steptoe which white men provoked fear, and Steptoe pointed out his neighbor across the road, Representative Hurst. They had known each other since childhood, but Hurst recently threatened him and several other active NAACP chapter members, including Herbert Lee.
The following morning, Lee drove a truckload of cotton to the Liberty gin, with Hurst following behind in his truck. Hurst parked his truck, rushed to the cab of Lee’s truck, and began arguing with Lee, witnesses said.
Hurst drew his gun and thrust it in Lee’s face, shouting, “I’m not fooling around this time! I really mean business!” Lee reportedly told Hurst he would talk to him, if he put the gun down. When Hurst lowered the gun, Lee slid into the passenger seat. Then Hurst, cursing, ran to the front of the truck as Lee tried to get out and shot Lee in the head.
Nobody in Liberty would touch [Lee’s] body. For the rest of the morning the dead man’s body lay sprawled in the dirt where it had fallen. Finally, around noon, somebody convinced a black undertaker in nearby McComb to send a hearse out to the Liberty gin.
A coroner’s inquest took place that afternoon where Representative Hurst testified that Lee owed him money and that when he had asked about it, Lee had “come at him with a tire iron.” Lee, he said, “had an ungovernable temper.”
Hurst further claimed he had walked around the front of the truck to meet the Negro. “I didn’t run,” he said. “I got no rabbit in me.” Hurst explained the .38 he was holding in his other hand had at that moment “accidentally” discharged. “I must have pulled the trigger unconsciously,” Hurst swore.
While the murder was ruled a “justifiable homicide,” Doar later observed that Hurst “might have been eager to pick a fight with Lee because Lee had observed Hurst skulking around the parking lot outside a voter registration meeting, jotting down license numbers.” Hurst could not have been too upset over the incident, since Mississippi politicians’ reputations were often enhanced if they were known to have killed a black man in “self defense.”
The night of the murder, Moses returned to Amite County and questioned three black eyewitnesses who testified at the inquest. Two admitted that Sheriff Caston and his deputies coerced them into lying about the tire iron. Lee, only 5 feet, 4 inches, weighed about 150 pounds and had not lifted an arm in self-defense against Hurst, 6-2 and 200 pounds.
“Your sense of isolation was complete,” Moses would later recall. “It was very clear you were absolutely on your own when there was not even the possibility of a federal investigation.”
No charges were ever brought against Hurst. One witness to the Lee murder, Lewis Allen, later admitted he lied to protect himself and his family, but he was killed – riddled with buckshot, in his driveway three years later, after reporting that he had been harassed by local police officials several times since the Lee killing.
Local authorities said they had “no clues” in the Allen killing. Allen had been a Freedom Rider and was involved in the civil rights movement. On the day he was killed, April 7, 1964, in Liberty, he was making final arrangements to move north.
Susan Orr-Klopfer copyright 2005
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