Herbert Lee, a farmer and the father of nine children, was a charter member of Amite County’s NAACP branch. He remained openly active even after Sheriff E.L. Caston raided the chapter’s membership list and records in 1954. After Robert “Bob” Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Amite County, Lee volunteered to drive him around the area to contact potential voters. Lee also provided transportation to students in the nearby McComb Movement.
In 1961, Mississippi state legislator E.H. Hurst murdered Lee but was never held accountable. According to witnesses that Bob Moses located and spoke with privately after the incident, on the morning of September 25, 1961, Lee drove to a cotton gin in Liberty with a load of cotton. E.H. Hurst drove up behind Lee in a truck owned by Billy Jack Caston, got out, and went up to Lee’s window. The two men argued, and Hurst pulled out a gun. Lee refused to talk to him unless Hurst put the gun down. Lee got out of the truck on the side away from Hurst, but Hurst ran around the front of the truck, aimed, and fired at Lee, killing him.
The day before the murder, local NAACP leader E.W. Steptoe testified to John Doar of the Justice Department that Hurst had publicly threatened to kill Steptoe, George Reese, and Lee, who had attended voter registration classes and volunteered to attempt to register. Steptoe also told Doar that whites were recording the license plate numbers of cars at meetings.
Around a dozen witnesses, both black and white, were present when Hurst murdered Lee, but Lee’s body remained on the ground for hours. Eventually his body was taken to a McComb funeral home because no one in Liberty would touch it. Louis Allen, who witnessed the murder, was taken from the gin by a white man to the coroner’s jury; on the way there, he was told what to say. None of the African American witnesses were willing to testify against Hurst, and several told Moses that the sheriff instructed them to say that after a dispute over money, Lee attacked Hurst with a tire iron, and Hurst’s gun went off accidentally. Hearing such testimony, the coroner’s jury resolved that Hurst killed Lee in self defense, and Hurst spent no time in jail. When a federal jury began considering an indictment of Hurst in late October, Allen decided to truthfully testify if he was given federal protection. Moses was informed by the Justice Department that they could offer Allen no such protection, so Allen repeated the sheriff’s story to the jury. Louis Allen himself was later murdered, and no one was every prosecuted for the murder.
For some time after Lee’s murder, no African Americans in Amite County were willing to register to vote. Lee is memorialized in Bertha Gober’s song, “We’ll Never Turn Back,”and at least one of his children, Herbert Lee, Jr., was active in the movement in 1965, when he was only 15 years old.
Information on Herbert Lee’s murder is also included in the national registry nomination for the Westbrook Cotton Gin. Click here for the edited nomination form, with photos removed, in the document library for Amite County.
Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Champaign, Illinois: The University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Newfield, Jack. A Prophetic Minority. New York: The New American Library, 1966.
Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1955.
Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Cambridge Massachusetts: South End Press, 1964.