FBI Investigated George Lee’s Murder; Suspects Never Tried

As it turned out, the FBI did investigate the murder of the Rev. George Lee of Belzoni, and records show the agency built a circumstantial murder case against two men.

But a local prosecutor refused to take the case to a grand jury.

Peck Ray and Joe David Watson Sr., the suspects, were members of the small town’s white Citizens Council and both died in the 1970s.

Interviewed by Newsday years later in 2000, Ernest White, a close friend of Lee’s, said that he always suspected that Ray, a local handyman, and Watson, a gravel hauler, were involved in Lee’s murder. “We suspected them because of their reputation,” White told reporter Stephanie Saul.

Before Lee’s murder, Watson had been arrested, but not convicted, for randomly shooting into a black sharecropper’s home.

Some of Lee’s friends believed the murder was part of a larger conspiracy involving influential members of the community who wanted to silence Lee, who was encouraging blacks to register to vote.

“The big wheels paid them off,” said White, who became a city councilman years after Lee’s death.

The FBI released their investigation records to Newsday under the Freedom of Information Act. Many names in the records were marked out but reveal the FBI had named Watson and Ray:

“Witnesses saw two men leave a downtown street corner where they had been standing, enter Ray’s green two-toned Mercury convertible just before the shooting, drive away and return shortly afterward. Several witnesses saw a convertible fitting that description following Lee with only its parking lights on.

One witness said the fatal shots were fired from such a car. But no one could identify the shooters,” Saul reported.

The Newsday reporter also indicated that Ray had his convertible painted red following the shooting and that Watson’s pick-up had carried a sawed-off shotgun loaded with No. 3 buckshot – the same bullets used to kill Lee.

Further, Watson and Ray gave conflicting accounts of their activities that night,” Saul reported.

Ray’s wife told investigators that he had picked her up from the movie at about 11 p.m. and had gone home. But she could not remember the name of the movie.

Ray’s daughter, Doris Dalton, told Saul she did not believe her father could have committed such a crime and that it was her idea to paint the convertible because she was taking it to college.

Agents had turned over evidence to the local prosecutor, Stanny Sanders, but held Watson’s shotgun and shells for possible use in a trial. Sanders, who died in 1972, declined to prosecute.

An FBI memo in 1956 states that Sanders believed that while the investigation “conclusively demonstrates that criminal action was responsible for Lee’s death, he does not believe the identity of the subjects is sufficiently established by usable evidence to warrant presentation to the grand jury.”

Sanders told agents that a Humphreys County grand jury “probably would not bring an indictment, even if given positive evidence.”

Sanders suggested that Belzoni settled down after Lee’s murder, and he believed it would harm race relations to reopen the matter. The U. S. Justice Department did not file civil rights charges because it could not substantiate allegations that Lee was killed because of voting rights activities.

“The 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun was personally returned to Watson by an FBI agent, the file notes. Also delivered were the two No. 3 buckshot shells obtained … with the gun.”

That fall, political campaigns were negative, condemning voting initiatives and school desegregation efforts. The Citizens Council supported all five candidates for governor; and the state Democratic Party chair, Bidwell Adams, announced that blacks might be national Democrats, but they were not Mississippi Democrats.

“We don’t intend to have Negroes voting in this primary,” Adams said. Few blacks would have supported any of the gubernatorial candidates, anyway, black leader Aaron Henry of Clarksdale later observed.

Brown II follows Lee’s death

Shortly after Rev. Lee’s murder the Supreme Court handed down Brown II on May 31, 1955, ordering the South to proceed with integration “with all deliberate speed.” The wording seemed harsh to many, as Brown II spoke plainly in reaffirming the first decision.

This time anger was higher than before and chaos reigned in many communities throughout the South, including the Mississippi Delta.

Three weeks later, the NAACP in Vicksburg filed a petition signed by 140 parents calling for “immediate steps to reorganize the public schools on a non-segregated basis.”

The following week in Natchez, seventy-five parents filed a similar petition. Parents followed suit in Jackson and then within weeks, Delta parents in Clarksdale and Yazoo City joined the growing movement. It was a real act of courage for any parent to sign a petition, and NAACP leader Medgar Evers insisted that people know what they were signing and all possible consequences.

Evers, too, was later murdered and his widow, Myrlie Evers later wrote that parents were also assured they could remove their names if pressures became too great.

Black teachers were holding back in their support, afraid they would lose their jobs if identified with the movement. Myrlie Evers wrote.

Further, a problem existed for most black teachers because of their own inferior training. Few had advanced degrees or schooling outside of Mississippi. Some had no degree at all, and many black teachers soon lost their jobs.

Most school boards simply closed the matter, saying the petitions failed to meet certain requirements and presented them with nothing to take action upon. This advice, at least in Vicksburg, came from the state’s attorney general.

But white Citizens Councils did not see the situation as closed. New chapters quickly formed and in Yazoo City, the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of petitioners were listed in a paid advertisement in the Yazoo Herald as a “public service” of the Citizens Council of Yazoo City.

Myrlie Evers told how the toll of petitioners in Yazoo City quickly overcame any possibilities of change:

“Jasper Mims, treasurer of the local NAACP, had been a carpenter for thirty years. He had earned up to $150 a week. Months later he reported he had not had a call for work since the now-famous ad had appeared.

“The income of Hoover Harvey, a plumber whose customers were mostly white, was soon down to twenty dollars a week. Both Mims and Harvey removed their names from the petition, but there was no letup in the pressure.”

Fifty-one of the fifty-three signatures on the petition were removed; two people who left the county for good didn’t stop to have their names taken from the list, and this was the story in most towns where the petitions were filed.

Medgar Evers drove from city to city, speaking at meetings and asking petitioners to hold firm.

But this was not to be, and the Jackson NAACP soon became a distribution point for food and clothing as petitioners around the state suffered. People told the NAACP they received threatening telephone calls or were put off their plantations; and they were having police, money, voting, and even marital problems.

Others killed as violence grows

The growing violence was not limited to the Delta. Lamar Smith was killed on a Saturday morning, August 13, 1955, in Brookhaven.

The sixty-year-old farmer and World War II veteran was handing out voting literature to blacks on the Lincoln County Courthouse lawn, in the home county of Judge Brady, author of Black Monday, when he was shot by a white man in broad daylight who was never officially identified although dozens of people watched the killing. No one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man.

Smith, who had voted in the primary election eleven days earlier, was explaining to blacks how to vote by absentee ballot to avoid violence at the polls. He may have also been campaigning against a county supervisor.

The NAACP later blamed Citizens Councils for the murder in a pamphlet entitled M is for Murder and Mississippi.

Even though the murder occurred on Saturday morning when the courthouse square was normally filled with people, investigators said there were no witnesses to be found.

Historian John Dittmer observes that, “Although the sheriff saw a white man leaving the scene ‘with blood all over him,’ no one admitted to having witnessed the shooting,” and “the killer went free.”

Later, a white farmer, Noah Smith, was charged with murder in a warrant filed by J. J. Breland, a “courageous attorney.”

Between the years of 1956 and 1959, Medgar Evers spent much of his time investigating racially motivated homicides. Officially, ten blacks were killed by whites in civil rights struggles in those years, and there were no convictions.

Evers’ job was to investigate, file complaints, issue angry statements, take reporters to crime scenes, issue press releases, and involve the federal government.

(Excerpt from Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, by M. Susan Klopfer, copyright 2005 M. Susan Klopfer)