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)

Lahaina – a Blend of Old and New on Maui

In 1843, Hawaiian King Kamehameha the Great declared Lahaina, Maui the capital of the kingdom. Lahaina was once known as the whaling capital of the world. The waning whale industry and the move of the capital from Maui to Oahu caused the local economy to become dependent first on agriculture and later on tourism.

Lahaina offers visitors to Maui a unique glimpse into the past while enjoying what Maui has to offer today. Visitors are enticed to walk, shop, eat and enjoy. Spending the day in Lahaina is a must-do on any visit to Maui.

The Old Courthouse was built in 1859. Visitors may walk through this historic building and view exhibits from top Maui artists presented by the Lahaina Art Society. The lower level galleries still feature windows with the bars that held Maui prisoners in days past. Informational brochures about other historic sites in this Maui village are available here as well.

The Courthouse Square is home to what is, perhaps, the most memorable tree on Maui. The Banyan Tree, planted in 1873, has aerial roots that have grown into twelve major trunks. What appears at first glance to be a small forest is actually all part of one tree. The tree provides nearly an acre of shade in the square and is a popular meeting place among Maui tourists. While in the Courthouse Square, take a moment to find the restored ruins of the original Maui waterfront fort built in the 1830s.

The streets of Lahaina are lined with small shops and restaurants catering to Maui visitors. At the quieter southern end of Lahaina is an oceanfront boutique mall (505 Front Street). Stores feature made-on-Maui products, Maui souvenirs and gifts.

There are several waterfront restaurants in this area and live music is available on weekend evenings for Maui tourists to enjoy. The Lahaina Center (900 Front Street) features 30 stores and restaurants offering apparel, jewelry and microbrews. A stroll along the streets of Lahaina will fulfill the shopping needs of any Maui visitor.

Maui visitors looking for a party atmosphere at night will find it here so a well-planned day visit can turn into a night full of fun.

Lahaina offers great night life and plenty of fun but it lacks the features that make accommodations on Maui special. It is missing the clean beaches and slow pace the makes a Maui vacation special. A limited amount of lodging is available in Lahaina but most area accommodations are north of Lahaina. Lahaina is a great place to visit on Maui but not to stay.

Visitors looking for water activities to enjoy on Maui will find themselves drawn to the offerings at Lahaina. Vendors at the harbor offer day and evening cruises, submarine rides and other boating activities that provide a water-based view of Maui.

Visitors to Maui rely mostly on rental cars for transportation. Because Lahaina is a popular destination greater crowds are found here than at any other location on Maui. As a result parking can sometimes be a bit difficult. Plan arrival for before 10 a.m. and parking should not be a problem.

Lahaina offers Maui visitors a special mixture of old and new that is not to be missed.

Explore Decatur Arts Festival and Downtown Galleries

Historic Decatur, Georgia is a city that showcases the arts. Located six miles east of downtown Atlanta, Decatur is home to a variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants clustered near its old courthouse square. Each May the city showcases its arts community during the Decatur Arts Festival. More than 70,000 visitors are expected to attend this year’s 25th annual festival, scheduled for May 24-26, 2013. In addition to the festival activities, visitors are invited to explore the city’s downtown galleries. Here are the highlights of the weekend festivities.

The festival kicks off with an ArtWalk on May 24 from 5-10pm. Local shops, galleries, restaurants, and educational institutions in the downtown and Oakhurst areas will host free exhibitions and receptions. One stop on the ArtWalk will be the Dalton Gallery on the campus of Agnes Scott College, located at 141 College Avenue. The college will host a juried fine arts exhibition from May 21-June 2, which will be open to the public from 2-5pm on weekdays and from noon-8pm during the festival weekend.

A highlight of the Decatur Arts Festival will be the juried artists market in downtown Decatur on May 25-26. This high quality market attracts artists from across the Southeast, who will showcase paintings, sculpture, mixed media, ceramics, digital arts, fiber arts, glass, leather, and jewelry. Theater and literary arts activities and presentations will be taking place on the front lawn of the DeKalb History Center at the Old Courthouse on the square. Visitors can enjoy musical entertainment on the performing arts stage at the bandstand. A children’s festival is scheduled for May 25 at Decatur Recreation Center, located at 231 Sycamore Street. The kids can enjoy arts and crafts, inflatables, and music. Food and beverage vendors will be set up at the festival, or visitors may want to try one of Decatur’s popular downtown cafes or restaurants. Admission to the festival is free, and hours are 10am-6pm on Saturday and 11am-6pm on Sunday. Attendees can take MARTA transit to Decatur Station.

There are several downtown galleries that festival attendees may want to visit. The Seen Gallery is located at 415 Church Street. The gallery offers original paintings, photography, sculpture, ceramics, etchings, hand-blown glass, and limited edition prints. Wild Oats & Billy Goats, at 112 E. Ponce de Leon Avenue, specializes in whimsical and colorful folk art. Visitors can browse for paintings, pottery, sculpture, jewelry, and hand-sewn art. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday from 11am-6pm, Saturdays from 11am-7pm, and Sundays from 1-5pm. Rose Squared Gallery & Framing is located on the courthouse square, at 111 Clairmont Avenue. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm. The gallery features works by owner JD Isaacs and other artists. The works of metal artist Ivan Bailey are currently being shown. Watercolor and drawing classes are offered.

Decatur Market & Gallery, at 153 Ponce de Leon Place, is a co-op for emerging artists and artisans. Each of the two dozen artists displaying pieces in the gallery works one day each month to greet visitors. The gallery showcases modern art, landscapes, mixed media, pottery, jewelry, and textiles. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday from noon-8pm and Sundays from noon-5pm.