January 1, 1912 – September 25, 1961
Raised in Amite County, Mississippi
When Bob Moses arrived in Amite County, Mississippi in the summer of 1961, Herbert Lee, one of the few Black people with a vehicle, drove the young SNCC field secretary around the county, the two of them attempting to convince local Blacks to register to vote. The commitment and effort would cost Lee his life.
Born in Amite County in 1912, Herbert Lee had little formal education. His wife taught him how to sign his name after they were married. By the 1950s, he was a successful dairy farmer. When he traveled with his nine children, he was careful to avoid gas stations and restaurants in which they might experience racial slights.
Lee was a childhood friend of E. W. Steptoe and one of the charter members of the Amite County chapter of the NAACP Steptoe organized in 1952. In majority-Black Amite County, only one Black person was registered to vote. It was the most Klan-ridden county in the state, and only a handful of people were willing to participate in the effort to gain voting rights. Nonetheless, as a few people began trickling into voting school Moses organized in the tiny church on Steptoe’s property, an alarmed white community began threatening reprisal and violence.
Herbert Lee was one of the first victims. On September 25th, 1961, Lee arrived at the Westbrook cotton gin outside the town of Liberty with a full load of cotton in his truck. There he was confronted by E. H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi state legislature. Hurst and Lee, who had been boyhood friends, had been arguing over Lee’s involvement with SNCC. Hurst called him over, and in front of more than a dozen witnesses, Hurst shot Lee in the head, killing him.
The day after Lee’s death, a coroner’s inquest was held, and the witnesses all declared that Lee had threatened Hurst with a tire iron. The two Black witnesses, Louis Allen and a local reverend, confirmed Hurst’s version of events, ending the inquest. Allen later reached out to Moses and Steptoe to tell them that the testimony he gave at the inquest was false. As he later told John Doar at the Department of Justice, the courtroom had been packed with armed men, and he was afraid for his family if he revealed the truth. Allen confessed that Lee had asked Hurst to put the gun down and that Hurst had shot him without provocation. When the local authorities got wind of Allen’s confession, he quickly recanted but nonetheless, began to receive death threats. In early 1964, he made plans to leave the state with his family, but was found murdered just outside his property early one morning.
Sara Bullard, Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle (Montgomery, AL: Civil Rights Education Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, 1989).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Robert Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).