George Washington Lee was a civil rights leader, businessman, and preacher. He also served as the vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. He later became head of the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Like so many people during the early 1900s, Lee grew up in poverty in Edwards, Mississippi. His mother was a plantation worker, and his stepfather was a mean and abusive man. Lee’s mother died while he was still young, leaving him to be raised by his sister. By the 1930s, Lee had accepted the call to become a preacher, and he worked hard to minister to the people in the community and rise above poverty. Lee eventually became a business man and opened a grocery store while pastoring four churches.
He became the first #Black to register to vote in Humphreys County, Mississippi. The community was predominantly Black but they had been disfranchised by provisions of the constitution of 1890, particularly due to poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1953, Lee and a friend Gus Courts, who was also a black grocer, started the Belzoni branch of the NAACP. The sheriff of the town would not accept their poll taxes, and this in return would keep them from voting, because it was required for voter registration. The sheriff left the two men no other choice, they took him to court. Lee along with Courts had registered all of the county’s ninety black voters.
The white people in the county were already upset because of the U.S Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional in Topeka. The White Citizens Council had been formed, and there were a lot of antics being pulled to keep Black people from voting. Blacks were being threatened, intimated, and some forced out of business. Many Black people gave up, but Lee and Courts stood their ground; they were determined to vote.
As vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Lee and other members of the Council pushed the issue for voting rights and social justice by organizing a successful boycott on gas stations that refused to install restrooms for black people. Medgar Evers worked as the organizer along with Lee and the Council head Dr. T.R.M Howard. Lee was one of the speakers at the Council’s annual meeting in April, which drew a crowd of more than 5000 to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Lee’s speech was said to have “fueled” the crowd. Less than a month after this speech, Lee was shot and killed in his car around midnight. A convertible pulled up beside Lee’s car, and an unidentified person fired three shot-gun blasts, shattering his jaw and forcing him off the road. Lee died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Autopsy showed lead pellets taken from his face were consistent with a buckshot. The murder came days after Lee had received a threatening letter demanding he drop his name from voting. The sheriff at the time “Ike Shelton”, wanted to say the accident was due to a traffic accident and what they found were dental fillings torn loose by the impact of the car crash. Evers and Howard despised by the sheriff and governor demanded there be a thorough investigation. The U.S. Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, Jr., ordered the Justice Department to look into the matter. Lee’s funeral received wide coverage around the world in Black newspapers. Dr. Howard said that some Black people “would sell their grandma’s for a half a dollar, but Lee was not one of them.” 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 was assassinated ten years later in his Jackson driveway by a Delta Klansman and member of the White Citizens Council.