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)

The Roads Less Traveled

It was a particularly bucolic stretches of country road, gently curved over and around rolling hills, dappled by afternoon sun through tall pine trees. Coming up was one of those diamond shaped yellow road signs, the kind that typically warn of an intersection ahead or a school bus stop. But instead, this one warned me to be on the lookout for slow moving horse-drawn carriages.

Huh?

I grew up in rural Iowa near a large Amish community, so I’m actually quite familiar with these signs. I was however, not expecting to encounter one in southern Mississippi.

A few miles beyond I turn at the sign for Roger’s Basketry where I’m greeted by a pretty young woman dressed much like the Amish near where I grew up. Her sister the basketmaker was away, she tells me, but she’s happy to show me around the shop filled with beautiful baskets and homemade preserves, and explains that her community of German Baptists has somewhat different religious roots than the Amish, but practices a very similar lifestyle-they dress similarly, don’t use electricity and travel about in horse drawn buggies.

This was one of many memorable moments to come when, during several days in May I allowed myself to savor the joys of random exploration, driving Mississippi roads I hadn’t traversed before, without a pre-existing destination. Along the way I’d ask folks to point me towards the things they found most interesting about their hometowns. And as usually happens, one such discovery leads to another.

It all started earlier that day at the welcome center in Hattiesburg, where I’d stopped in for the free wi-fi and walked out with a complimentary cup of coffee, a cookie and my first tip. I was headed north on Highway 49 to Shady Acres.

Can a divided four-lane highway be a country road? I would posit that it can, when it’s populated all along its length with farms, fruit stands and charming small towns. It was a ten-foot long giant watermelon that first made me hit the brakes along this stretch. The Watermelon Patch is mostly an oddly located shoe store these days, but it still pays homage to its fruit stand roots by offering fresh made peach cobbler in the back. A bit further down the road was Shady Acres, which lived up to its billing, boasting bins filled with fruit and vegetables, along with bedding plants out back, not to mention a bakery offering up fresh apple cakes, and hot plate lunches served in a screened porch or under outdoor tables set amidst a forest of ferns.

“Have you been to KA pottery?” someone responds as I ask again for guidance in my exploration.

I hadn’t. So it was on to Seminary, one of a string of pretty towns, sandwiched between Highway 49 and beautiful Okatoma Creek. A quick stop at the drugstore for a scoop of ice cream from the soda fountain and directions (over the tracks, five miles out of town, second turn past the faded white fence by the barn on the hill-the teenagers tore down the sign) and shortly I was pulling down a long gravel drive, up to a newly built home nestled on the side of a deep wooded ravine. A home I was soon to learn that Troy and Claudia Ka Cartee designed and built themselves. Along with the pottery studio and a soon to open gallery space.

They moved to this land owned by her family from southern California, in search of a place where Ka could fully immerse herself in her passion for pottery. Since then she has established a national following for her work, including her exceptionally popular dinnerware. She’s also a noted gourmet vegetarian chef, growing her own herbs in one the windows that overlooks the forest beyond their home, and teaching cooking classes in nearby Hattiesburg.

You can’t help but linger in such company, but lunch time has come and gone by now, so Ka calls ahead to see if the Deli Diner is still serving in Collins, the county seat and next town over. There I meet Rob and Jenn Walters, a young couple who are slowly transforming an old Sonic into their own space for fresh salads and sandwiches. As part of the transformation the walls are now covered with an eclectic mix of clocks, photographs, and original art. A spin through Collins reveals a pretty courthouse and a bustling downtown in an era when many are struggling.

Which sadly is somewhat the case at my next stop in nearby Mendenhall, which despite having perhaps Mississippi’s most beautiful courthouse, has a struggling courthouse square. But it also has one of the state’s most passionate local advocates on a mission to remedy that. Pam Jones has already taken over the old Mendenhall Grocery and Grain, and made the shelves that once held farm supplies and bins that once held seeds, into display cases for a striking collection of work by local artisans. Her friend Melinda Hart owns a deli in the back, with fare that goes way beyond the typical small town plate lunch, with offerings like turkey, gouda cheese, and Granny Smith apple slices on warmed raisin bread.

Jones has also founded a group working to repurpose another historic downtown structure into the future home of the Simpson County Museum and Art Gallery.

A few miles outside of town is beautiful D’Lo Waterpark on Strong River, at falls once considered sacred for the harp-like musical sound they make. The sound comes from trapped air bubbles in the submerged fissures and scour-pockets of the stream bed, made as the river flows over the falls. Or maybe, just perhaps there’s a less scientific explanation. In any case it is a spot beautiful enough to have served as a locale for the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

By this time I’m almost to Jackson where I’ll spend the night, but not before passing by Mississippi’s Petrified Forest and a stop for terrific fried catfish in the giant igloo that is Jerry’s Catfish house.

The next day I’m headed south again, following another lead. I had a picture from a friend to confirm its existence. But when I asked several folks I encountered on this journey about “the Grand Canyon of Mississippi” I got blank stares… until I got to Columbia. Here the question prompted a quick smile and careful directions to a spot about ten miles northwest of the city. “Red Bluff” is what the small signs pointing the way actually call it. I wondered if I’d made a wrong turn when I came to a sign that said road closed ahead. I eased on down the road anyway and soon discovered WHY the road was closed.

A few hundred yards more is a permanent barricade, because beyond, the roadway has fallen away. Standing as close as I dared to that spot, I looked over the edge. The erosion that had put an end to the usefulness of this stretch of highway had produced a gorge perhaps a hundred or more feet deep, exposing layer after layer of brilliantly hued soil in the process. The stunning view through the gorge and to the timber-lined hills beyond is the sort of thing you expect to see in Utah or New Mexico… not this part of Mississippi.

Back in Columbia, just a few blocks from yet another pretty courthouse, was my last one-of-a-kind discovery for this trip: The Southern Fried Rabbit Restaurant. Could there be anywhere else in the world where you can get barbecued rabbit on a bun to go at a drive up window? Not to mention fried rabbit, or rabbit and gravy over rice.

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