Rev. George Lee, a civil rights leader and activist, is considered by some historians to be the first martyr of the civil rights movement. In the town of Belzoni, Miss., Rev. Lee led a series of voter registration drives which led to his assassination in 1955. The town was given the gruesome nickname “Bloody Belzoni” after Lee’s death.
A successful businessman, Lee was also the leader of the local branch of the NAACP with his partner, Gus Courts. In addition, Lee worked alongside the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, whose most famous member was activist Medgar Evers.
Lee was the first African-American to register to vote since the Reconstruction Era in Humphreys County, Miss. Lee was especially concerned with getting Black voters registered in the Delta Region, and registered over 90 Black voters in the county along with Courts’ assistance.
Because of the success of his grocery store, his ministry and a printing press company he and his wife owned, Lee had the resources to lead the registration drives in Belzoni and nearby counties. Lee and Courts took Belzoni’s sheriff to court after he refused to accept their poll taxes, which gained the gentlemen plenty of enemies.
Jim Crow laws held fast at the time, and many whites continued to resist racial integration while employing intimidation tactics. The Citizen’s Council (also known as the White’s Citizen’s Council) promised protection to Lee and other activists but only if they called off their voter registration efforts. In the meantime, the WCC intimidated registrants by
The Council was successful in shutting down some vocal voting rights proponents but Lee and Courts refused to be intimidated.
On May 7, 1955, Lee was gunned down in his car by unknown assailants, which prompted an investigation by the NAACP. Now the NAACP’s Field Secretary, Evers looked into the details of his former colleague’s death and was told by the town’s sheriff that Lee died as a result of a car crash.
Although lead pellets were found in Lee’s car and in his head after an autopsy, officials claimed that the metal was part of Lee’s dental fillings. Two men who were members of the Citizen’s Council were named suspects in the case according to older FBI files, but a county prosecutor refused to move the matter to trial. The two men died in the 1970s, with no justice for the Lee family. Just over three months later, the brutal lynching death of Emmett Till occurred in a nearby county in Mississippi.