Herbert Lee was born in Amite County, Mississippi, on 1st January, 1912. A farmer and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Lee became one of the first African Americans to try and register to vote during the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) campaign in Mississippi.
Lee was shot and killed by local white politician, E. H. Hurst, in Liberty, Mississippi on 25th September, 1961. At his trial Hurst claimed he had killed Lee in self-defence and was acquitted by the jury. Lewis Allen, an African American, who witnessed Lee's death, later claimed that Hurst had not acted in self-defence. Before he could testify in court, Allen was also murdered.
On September 31 Herbert Lee was killed in Amite County. . . . The Sunday before Lee was killed, I was down at 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.
Our first job was to try to track down those people who had been at the shooting, who had seen the whole incident. Essentially, the story was this: they were standing at the cotton gin early in the morning and they saw Herbert Lee drive up in his truck with a load of cotton, E. H. Hurst following behind him in an empty truck. Hurst got out of his truck and came to the cab on the driver's side of Lee's truck and began arguing with Lee. He began gesticulating towards Lee and pulled out a gun which he had under his shirt and began threatening Lee with it. One of the people that was close by said that Hurst was telling Lee, "I'm not fooling around this time, I really mean business," and that Lee told him, "Put the gun down. I won't talk to you unless you put the gun down." Hurst put the gun back under his coat and then Lee slid out on the other side, on the offside of the cab. As he got out, Hurst ran around the front of the cab, took his gun out again, pointed it at Lee and shot him.
Hurst was acquitted. He never spent a moment in jail. In fact, the sheriff had whisked him away very shortly after the crime was committed. 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. Now we knew in our hearts and minds that Hurst was attacking Lee because of the voter registration drive, and I suppose that we all felt guilty and felt responsible, because it's one thing to get beat up and it's another thing to be responsible, or to participate in some way in a killing.
At first glance, the recent posthumous pardon of John Snowden by Maryland Governor Parris Glendening seemed as much a nod to racial correctness as an effort to right a blatant racial injustice. Snowden has been dead for more eighty years. The Annapolis, Maryland deliveryman was hung in 1917 for the rape and murder of the wife of a prominent businessman, and sentenced to die. Snowden was a African-American, and the woman was white. The case was hideously marred with racial taunts, allegations of torture, a coerced confession, and the threat of mob violence. This cast grave doubt on Snowden's guilt. Local black leaders called his execution a "legal lynching," and Glendening, whatever his motive, agreed.
But he's not alone. State prosecutors in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia have done their racial mea culpas. They have convicted one of the Birmingham church bombers, the murderers of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, and army major, Lemuel Penn. They are also considering reopening old cases in the murders of blacks and civil rights workers.
In 1955, Emmett Till was abducted at gunpoint from his Mississippi home, savagely beaten, and murdered. He was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Two white men were arrested and tried for the murder. An-all-white jury took less than an hour to acquit them. Despite mass pressure from civil rights groups, the attorney general refused to intervene.
In 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. Ten days later Parker's mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana. Within three weeks of the killing, FBI agents identified his killers. They had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines, and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. The government declined to prosecute.
In 1961, Herbert Lee, a young SNCC worker, was murdered by a white Mississippi state representative on an open highway during a traffic dispute. He was unarmed. Federal officials refused to prosecute. There were dozens of other blacks and civil rights workers murdered in the 1950s and 1960s. Their killers are known or suspected, and they still walk around free.
The Snowden pardon tossed an ugly glare on a period in which blacks were murdered with the quasi-official approval of Southern state officials, and the blind-eye of the federal government. These cases also scream for closure. The Bush administration and the Justice Department can do that, by doing what it could have done decades ago, bring their killers to justice.