Murders Around Mississippi

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Thursday, June 23, 2005


Rev. George Washington Lee

On May 7, 1955, Reverend George Washington Lee, the first black to register to vote in Humphreys County since Reconstruction, was shot to death on a neighborhood street while driving his car. Several witnesses saw a car drive by with white men inside, but the local sheriff ruled Rev. Lee had gotten in a fight with a woman and lost control of his car. The lead pellets found in his jaw tissues were “dental fillings, mysteriously dislodged in the accident.”

Lee and the second of the Belzoni Citizen Council’s prime targets, Gus Courts, both lived and ran small grocery businesses in Belzoni. Lee often used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. White officials offered him protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was killed.

Courts, head of the town’s new NAACP Chapter, was ordered by his banker to turn over all NAACP books. He refused and was warned to leave town. Earlier Courts was shown a list of ninety-five blacks registered in Humphreys County; a Citizens Council member instructed Courts that anyone not removing their name from the voting list would lose their jobs.

Both Courts and Reverend Lee were good friends and staunch members of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Each had worked for years to pay poll taxes so they could vote and were finally allowed to sign the register after the county sheriff feared federal prosecution. (Actually casting a ballot required a separate battle.)

On the day Rev. Lee was killed, almost a year after Brown, Courts had visited Reverend Lee’s store to talk about his business. Rev. Lee said he was about to lose his store because of Citizens Council pressure. The minister had received an earlier anonymous death threat demanding he remove his name from the voting list and as Courts left, Lee told his friend that he had a funny feeling, even though such threats by Council members were not uncommon.

That night as Reverend Lee drove his car along Belzoni’s Church Street, returning from a Regional Council meeting at Mound Bayou, “two gun blasts shattered the night stillness, and the Buick sedan swerved over the curb and rammed into a frame house. With the lower left side of his face gone, Rev. Lee staggered from the wreckage; he died during transportation to the Humphreys County Memorial Hospital.”

As it turned out, the FBI did investigate the Lee murder and records show the agency built a circumstantial murder case against two men, but a local prosecutor refused to take the case to a grand jury. Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Sr., the suspects, were members of the Citizens Council. Both died in the 1970s.

Interviewed by Newsday years later in 2000, Ernest White, a close friend of Lee's, said that he always suspected that Ray, a local handyman, and Watson, a gravel hauler, were involved in Lee's murder. "We suspected them because of their reputation," White told reporter Stephanie Saul. Before Lee's murder, Watson had been arrested, but not convicted, for randomly shooting into a black sharecropper's home.

Some of Lee’s friends believed the murder was part of a larger conspiracy involving influential members of the community who wanted to silence Lee, who was encouraging blacks to register to vote. "The big wheels paid them off," said White, who became a city councilman years after Lee's death.

M. Susan Klopfer copyright 2005
Excerpt from "Where Rebels Roost,Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited."
Availability Date June 28, 2005

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