It’s right around the time my parents were born. My grandparents were a little younger than I am now. A pair of large families growing larger in the suburbs of New Jersey and Rhode Island.
A thousand or so miles away, a pair of families grew smaller.
George Washington Lee was a Baptist preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi. He led four churches and ran a grocery store, the back room of which housed a printing press. As a successful black businessman, he used his influence to help found an NAACP chapter in the area, and used the press to encourage black residents of Belzoni to pay the county’s poll tax and register to vote.
As a result of his efforts, nearly all of the county’s 90 eligible black residents were registered to vote in 1955 before the local White Citizens Council intimidated them into giving up their votes.
Lee, however, refused to give up. Offered protection if he would end his registration drives, he rejected it. In a speech to the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, of which he was vice president, Lee told the audience, “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you make it through this hell.”
Lee would not.
On May 7, 1955, a shotgun blast blew off half his face while he was driving his car. The local sheriff said Lee died in a car accident, and that the lead pellets removed from the remains of his head were dental fillings, not buckshot.
Rosebud Lee left her husband’s casket open during the funeral, and the Chicago Defender printed a photo of his mangled body – a foretaste of Emmett Till’s funeral later that year.