Belzoni, Mississippi, a small Delta town once known for lynching and Saturday night gun fights, survived a tornado following Hurricane Katrina.
“We’re up here in the Delta, away from the coast where they really got it. We didn’t get the hurricane but we did get a tornado and it was pretty bad,” said the owner of a used car lot at the northern edge of this cotton hamlet once known as “Bloody Belzoni.”
Katrina’s subsequent winds and severe rains did in fact hurt most businesses in this community that has been slowly lifting itself up by the bootstraps since earlier days of civil rights violence.
In recent years Belzoni leaders created a marketing plan, hoping to bring in new business: colorful five and six-foot acrylic statues of smiling catfish wearing polka-dot bow ties advertise Belzoni’s newly self-acclaimed status of Catfish Capital of the World.
The catfish are scattered throughout downtown. And a catfish barbecue and Delta blues celebration takes place each summer.
For many Belzonians memories of past violence will never be erased despite marketing efforts, and it is near downtown, in a poor and vandalized neighborhood, where African Americans have placed a granite block at the beginning of a city street.
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 their right to vote.
* * * *
Rev. George Washington Lee, the first black person to register to vote in Humphreys County since Reconstruction, was shot to death on a neighborhood street while driving his car on the night of May 7, 1955.
Some who knew Lee and have remained to grow old in this Delta town say their friend was a kind and brave man who was brutalized and killed by white men angered over his voting rights advocacy.
LEE AND THE SECOND of Belzoni Citizen Council’s prime targets, Gus Courts, both lived and ran small grocery businesses. Citizen’s Councils were private Klan-influenced organizations formed in the Delta in 1954 to scare black citizens away from the polls and keep integration from taking place.
Lee also preached, often using his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to take action and vote.
White officials once offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused.
Heading the town’s new NAACP Chapter, Courts was ordered by his banker to turn over all NAACP books and when he refused, Courts was told to leave town. But he stayed.
Once Courts was handed a list of ninety-five blacks registered in Humphreys County by a Citizens Council member who warned that anyone not removing their name from the voting 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 poll taxes in order to vote and were finally allowed to sign the register only after the county sheriff feared federal prosecution. Casting a ballot required a separate battle.
The day of his murder, almost 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 with Courts to talk about the latest warning.
Lee reported getting an earlier anonymous death threat demanding 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 drove his car along Belzoni’s Church Street, two gun blasts shattered the night stillness, and the minister’s Buick sedan swerved over the curb and rammed into a frame house.
With the lower left side of his face gone, Rev. George Lee staggered from the wreckage but died during transportation to the Humphreys County Memorial Hospital.
When NAACP leader Medgar Evers arrived in Belzoni to investigate the murder of Rev. Lee, he was told by Sheriff Ike Shelton that Lee lost control of his car and died from the crash; the lead pellets found in his jaw tissues were dental fillings.
An autopsy was not necessary for the “freak accident,” Shelton said.
But at Mrs. Lee’s insistence, two black physicians examined her husband’s body and reported the tissues contained pellets “fired at close range from a high-powered gun.” They also found powder burns.
Over the next few days, Evers and two national NAACP representatives 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 slowed, the second car “pulled parallel and a shotgun was fired point-blank into his face. There were also descriptions of the three men, with tentative identifications.”
Evers always doubted that any FBI investigation took place, since there was never any public report “or even a solid rumor” as to what was in the report.
Rev. Lee’s murder was a cold-blooded answer to demands for equal treatment coming from more Mississippi blacks and was backed by the lies of the sheriff and local police, Evers later reported; Evers was assassinated ten years later in his Jackson driveway by a Delta Klansman and member of the white Citizens Council.
Recalled Aaron Henry of Clarksdale also a black Mississippi leader: “We felt we needed protection because the past had taught us that when one Negro is killed, stay out of 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 wasn’t a white man on the streets the day of the service, except for the press. There was a great turnout of Negroes for the funeral. This large presence of Negroes and absence of whites marked a turning point,” Henry said.
* * *
As Aaron Henry predicted, the murder of Rev. Lee became a critical turning point back in 1955; his untimely death would help prompt later passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) – one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history, guaranteeing millions of minority voters the equal opportunity to participate in elections and have their voices heard.
VRA ended literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods of keeping blacks from voting that had long poisoned the roots of this country’s democracy. In 1964, only 300 African Americans served in public office nationwide, including just three in Congress.
But today, more than 9,100 black elected officials serve, including 43 members of Congress, the largest number ever, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. often simply called Inc.
The VRA also opened politics for more than 6,000 Latino public officials including some 260 elected at the state or federal level, with 27 serving in Congress. Native Americans, Asians and others who have historically encountered harsh barriers to full political participation also have benefited greatly.
Yet violations of the VRA still occur and the United States has yet to achieve the constitutional goal of equality of political opportunity.
Inc. leaders and other who support voting rights reauthorization 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 in their election laws or procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. for pre-clearance. A bipartisan Congressional report in 1982 warned that without this provision, discrimination would reappear “overnight.”
* Requirements that communities with concentrations of voters who are Limited English Proficient provide them with bilingual election assistance including bilingual ballots, election materials, and pollworkers.
*The authority to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections.
Inc. leaders and others involved in voting rights see these provisions as critical to ensuring fairness and equal opportunity for minorities in American politics:
“At a time when America is vigorously engaged in promoting the ideal of multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq and across the globe, we need to ensure that lawmakers preserve and strengthen the necessary tools to ensure the continued success of democracy here at home. Reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is a first step.”
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