By: Davis Houck
The Reverend George W. Lee’s murder on May 7, 1955, is widely acknowledged as the first in the modern civil rights movement; in fact Lee’s name occupies the first entry at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
But Lee’s death was understood, even in 1955, as a threshold event in the burgeoning movement, especially for voting rights in Mississippi.
So many attended Lee’s funeral—an estimated 2,000—that it had to be held outside, here in the parking lot of the Green Grove Baptist Church instead of the church that Lee pastored, White Star Missionary Baptist Church. The speaking line-up featured an all-star cast of movement notables, including arguably the most important civil rights official in the country, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Executive Secretary, Roy Wilkins. In addition, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) was represented on the speaking platform by Mound Bayou surgeon, Dr. T. R. M Howard, with whom Lee was close. Just one month prior to his murder, Lee, who served as Vice President of the RCNL, memorably told an audience of 7,000, “Pray not for your mom and pop; they’ve gone to heaven. Pray you can make it through this hell.”
As it turns out, Ebony Magazine wisely decided to send a photographer and writer to capture the spectacle of Lee’s funeral. Henry Clay Anderson’s pictures captured the events of Lee’s death, including images of Lee’s family, the shooting, the small community of Belzoni and the funeral gathering at Green Grove. Another photograph was also circulating at the time: the Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s preeminent black newspapers in 1955, published a post-mortem picture of Lee’s badly damaged face in its May 21 issue. Whether or not it influenced her decision to have photographs taken of her son’s horribly mutilated corpse, Mamie Till was an avid reader of the Defender and very likely saw the picture of Lee’s face. Her son’s infamous picture would inspire and haunt a generation of civil rights activists.