Murder Mystery: Shining a Light on the Story that the Newspapers Left Out

By Jenice View, Allyson Criner Brown, Deborah Menkart, and Elizabeth Boyd

Herbert and Prince Lee (left photo). Louis Allen (right photo).

Herbert and Prince Lee (left photo). Louis Allen (right photo).

The murder of Mississippi voting rights activist Herbert Lee (Sept. 25, 1961), and subsequent murder of witness Louis Allen (Jan. 31, 1964), were key events in the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement. However, they were barely mentioned in the local press at the time and the story is missing from textbooks and public memory today.

We hope that this lesson for high school students and adults can begin to fill that gap. Using a “meet and greet” format, students take on the roles of key people and institutions from the period and interview each other.

Students learn that:

  • The murder was designed to intimidate African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
  • The local officials and media did not pursue justice in the case.
  • There were further repercussions as activists tried to expose the truth.
Robert Moses. Photo: Schomburg Center.

Robert Moses. Photo: Schomburg Center.

The lesson begins with the teacher reading a quote from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Robert Moses. Moses explains that there is more to the murder of Herbert Lee than what was reported in the paper.

On September 25, 1961 Herbert Lee was killed in Amite County…. The Sunday before Lee was killed, I was down at E. W. Steptoe’s with John Doar from the Justice Department and he asked Steptoe was there any danger in that area, who was causing the trouble and who were the people in danger. Steptoe had told him that E. H. Hurst who lived across from him had been threatening people and that specifically he, Steptoe, Herbert Lee, and George Reese were in danger of losing their lives.

We went out, but didn’t see Lee that afternoon. At night, John Doar and the other lawyers from the Justice Department left. The following morning about 12 noon, Doc Anderson came by the Voter Registration office and said a man had been shot in Amite County. I went down to take a look at the body and it was Herbert Lee; there was a bullet hole in the left side of his head just above the ear.

I remember reading very bitterly in the papers the next morning, a little short article on the front page of the McComb Enterprise Journal, said that:

the Negro had been shot in self-defense as he was trying to attack E. H. Hurst.

That was it. You might have thought he had been a bum. There was no mention that Lee was a farmer, that he had a family, that he had nine kids, beautiful kids, that he had been a farmer all his life in Amite County and that he had been a very substantial citizen. It was as if he had been drunk or something and had gotten into a fight and gotten shot.

Our first job was to try to track down those people who had been at the shooting, who had seen the whole incident. (From Liberation Magazine, 1970.)

The teacher alerts the students that they are going to step into the shoes of many of the people who were around at that time. They will interview each other and try to determine what is the story behind the brief description in the Enterprise Journal.

1963, Mississippi Voter Registration Activists (l-r) Bob Moses, Julian Bond, Curtis Hays, unknown activist, Hollis Watkins, Amzie Moore, and E.W. Steptoe. Photo (c) Harvey Richards Media Archive. Click on image to learn more.

1963, Mississippi Voter Registration Activists (l-r) Bob Moses, Julian Bond, Curtis Hays, unknown activist, Hollis Watkins, Amzie Moore, and E.W. Steptoe. Photo (c) Harvey Richards Media Archive. Click on image to learn more.

Background

For the teacher, here is a brief overview from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At age 50, Herbert Lee was a small, graying man who had worked hard to build his Mississippi cotton farm and dairy into a business that would support his wife and their nine children. He had little formal education and could barely read. His wife taught him how to sign his name after they were married.

Lee was a quiet man. Even those who knew him well do not recall hearing him talk about civil rights. But his actions spoke: He attended NAACP meetings at a neighboring farm without fail, even when threats and harassment kept many others away.

Lee’s perseverance was one thing that made him valuable to the civil rights movement. Another was his automobile: He was one of the few local African Americans with a car of his own. When Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Mississippi in 1961 to register black voters, Lee was his constant companion.

Lee spent hours driving Moses and the local NAACP president from farm to farm so they could talk about voting. In all of Amite County, there was only one black person registered to vote, and that person had never actually voted.

There is now a marker for Herbert Lee, thanks to Johnnie Powell, the owner of the Cotton Gin Restaurant.

There is now a marker for Herbert Lee, thanks to Johnnie Powell, the owner of the Cotton Gin Restaurant.

On the morning of Sept. 25, 1961, Lee pulled up to a cotton gin outside Liberty with a truckload of cotton. Several people watched as Mississippi state Rep. E.H. Hurst approached Lee and began to shout. Lee got out of the truck, and Hurst ran around in front of the vehicle. Hurst then took a gun out of his shirt and shot Lee in the head. The legislator claimed self-defense and was never arrested.

Louis Allen, a black farmer and timber worker who had seen the shooting, was later gunned down in his driveway on Jan. 31, 1964 – the day before he was to move to the North. No one was arrested for his murder.