BELZONI, Miss. (AP) _ The body of Rev. George W. Lee rests here in a simple churchyard, surrounded by dandelions and clover. Just blocks from this spot, down Church Street, he was ambushed in 1955 in what remains one of the civil rights movement’s most bedeviling and momentous murders.
“He was just groaning,” recalls Beatrice Foster, 81. As a young neighbor, she was among those who rushed to Lee’s aid moments after the still-unsolved shotgun slaying just before midnight 60 years ago.
“I yelled, `Somebody come here! This is Rev. Lee!’ ”
Come, they did. Hundreds mourned Lee at his open casket funeral, his horrific facial wound memorialized in the pages of Jet magazine. At a mass rally here weeks after the murder, NAACP national executive secretary Roy Wilkins hailed the fallen 51-year-old minister for his courage in registering black voters despite threats and economic pressures brought by white resistance leaders.
Six decades later, Lee’s death and the story of “Bloody Belzoni” have long left the national stage, but its legacy is seen all over this Delta town of 2,200, where a highway, a street and a museum are named for the civil rights martyr.
Unlike 1950s-era Sheriff Ike Shelton, a segregationist who many believe failed to even attempt an adequate investigation of Lee’s murder, current Sheriff J.D. “Bubba” Roseman is Black, as is the mayor and a majority of the elected officials here.
“It was scary as a kid,” said African-American civic leader Abraham Gates, 66, a candidate for Justice Court judge in this year’s Humphreys County elections. Gates was just six when his father showed him the damaged Buick sedan Lee had driven when an assailant in a second car fired a shotgun blast that ripped off part of the minister’s face, causing him to veer from the road and crash into a house.
Back in the day, Lee’s death received intense coverage in the “Black press,” the newspapers and magazines serving largely African-American readers, acting as a virtual precursor to another civil rights murder on the Mississippi Delta that would overshadow it three months later _ the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, beaten and shot for allegedly whistling at a White woman.
“You almost get the idea that nothing was happening in Mississippi until the murder of Emmett Till. But there was a lot going on,” said David Beito, a University of Alabama history professor who has studied Lee’s May 7, 1955, murder and considers it one of the movement’s watershed moments.
Memphis was the focal point, too, of a fruitless criminal investigation into Lee’s death conducted from the local FBI field office, which in those days had jurisdiction in the Delta.
The FBI reluctantly opened a file on the murder after Black leaders, including congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan, appealed to the White House, contending Mississippi authorities were covering up a murder.
Following Lee’s murder, Shelton reportedly told journalists the minister died from injuries sustained in the car crash. After FBI lab tests found metal fragments in Lee’s front left tire to be consistent with No. 4 buckshot, Shelton reversed ground, calling Lee a “ladies’ man” likely shot by a rival.
It took decades for other details to emerge. Newsday, the New York daily newspaper, reported in 2000 it obtained FBI records that said the federal agency had identified two suspects _ both White men with ties to the local Citizens Council, a pro-segregation group _ and had even recovered a sawed-off shotgun from a pickup owned by one of the men.
The FBI turned over its evidence to local district attorney Stanny Sanders. He declined to prosecute.
Citing a 1956 FBI memo, Newsday reported that while Sanders believed the investigation “conclusively demonstrates that criminal action was responsible for Lee’s death,” he didn’t believe the killers’ identities had been sufficiently established. Evidently, racial motives, too, factored into the decision to not pursue charges.
All the principal figures connected to the case are now dead.
Nonetheless, the story lives on here in Belzoni, where many residents say they had learned the identity of the two suspects named in FBI reports years earlier _ not from official records but from oral stories passed on by an older generation.
“You still hear so much about that,” said Fredrick Wilder, who cuts hair at Deek’s Barber Shop directly across the street from the scene of Lee’s 1955 car crash. “They said they sold the gun.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com