By: Davis Houck
When the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled on the Brown v. Board of Education school integration case on May 17, 1954, the decision unleashed a huge backlash, especially in the southern states.
That backlash, formalized in the campaign of “massive resistance,” directly contributed to the rise of the Citizens’ Councils movement and the intimidation of blacks seeking to integrate public schools.
But the Supreme Court decision also gave rise to a new volley of racial violence triggered by fears of integration and voting rights. One early voting rights activist in the Mississippi Delta, Belzoni’s Reverend George W. Lee, waged a campaign in Humphreys County to encourage blacks to register to vote. President of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Vice President of Dr. T.R.M. Howard’s Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), Lee and his wife, Rosebud, ran a clothes cleaning business out of their home. Lee also teamed in Belzoni with good friend, Gus Courts, who ran a grocery store and also helped organize an NAACP chapter. Both men were repeatedly threatened by the local Citizens’ Council to remove their names from the voting rolls and warned not to encourage local blacks to register.
Late in the evening of May 7, 1955, Reverend Lee’s car was ambushed by a convertible; several gunshots rang out. After crashing his car into Katherine Blair’s home, Lee managed to stagger to a taxi stand where he was rushed to a hospital; the 51-year-old Lee died in route. Sheriff Ike Shelton was quick to dismiss Lee’s death as caused by a jealous husband or boyfriend. Shelton famously claimed, too, that the buckshot in Lee’s jaw was nothing but dental fillings loosened by the crash.
A little more than three months later, fellow voting rights activist Lamar Smith was gunned down in the middle of the morning and before a large crowd assembled at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven. While authorities arrested three white men for Smith’s murder, no witnesses came forward to testify at a grand jury hearing in September. A week after Smith’s murder, on August 20, 1955, Emmett Till boarded a train for Mississippi. While he very likely did not know it, Till’s journey south came at a most dangerous time: the white backlash from the Brown decision grew angrier by the day and attempts by blacks to register to vote only roiled the racial waters further. Accused Till murderer J. W. Milam acknowledged as much in his infamous Look Magazine “confession.”
Later in the year the NAACP published a pamphlet titled “M is for Mississippi and Murder,” in which the organization linked the murders of Lee, Smith and Till to the state’s unrelenting white supremacy.