WASHINGTON — Voting rights for black people did not come easily in Mississippi in 1955, but the Rev. George Lee was not one to give up. Using his pulpit and his printing press, he tried to sign up African-Americans in the Delta to vote, despite threats to his life.
Then one spring day in the tiny town of Belzoni, Lee turned up dead. White city officials attributed it to a car accident, but a pair of black physicians said they found lead pellets in his head. The episode made the minister the first martyr of the civil rights movement, and the town was known to activists thereafter as “Bloody Belzoni.”
Belzoni’s first black mayor, Wardell Walton, 64, could not help but remember that history Tuesday night as a surge of black voters from his town and surrounding Humphreys County turned out to help Senator Thad Cochran, a Republican, eke out a victory in what had become the toughest race in his career. Mississippi, a state with perhaps the most racially polarized electorate, had upended its traditions in an unexpected way.
“I’m sure that George Lee would be smiling at the impact that black voters have had in trying to determine the next senator for the state of Mississippi, 50 years after the Freedom Summer, and the passage of the civil rights bill,” Walton, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2013, said by phone after the polls closed. “His life and death was not in vain.”
Born in 1904, Lee became a preacher in Belzoni in the 1930s and cofounded a branch of the NAACP there in 1953. Blacks were a majority in Humphreys County, and Lee, a Baptist, was the first African-American to register to vote there since Reconstruction.
He was outspoken in his denunciations of racism. He once urged his flock to pray not for the dead, but to “pray you can make it through this hell.”
According to the Mississippi Civil Rights Project, by the time he died, he had helped 92 other African-Americans register to vote by organizing drives and pressuring local authorities.
White officials in Belzoni offered him protection from the Belzoni Citizens’ Council, which was targeting him, on the condition that he stop his efforts to register black voters.
He refused and died soon after in an episode that was never officially solved. The sheriff refused to allow an autopsy, claiming that the lead pellets found in Lee’s jaw were dental fillings.
Most everyone in the area knows the story, despite the passing of nearly six decades.
“I was a little boy, but I was familiar with him,” Walton said.
The former mayor was not surprised by African-Americans’ enthusiasm for Cochran. The returns showed that Humphreys County, a predominantly African-American area, went for the senator, 811 to 214.
“Cochran has been very responsive to the community, to the constituency and the state regardless of race,” he said.
Progress has come in fits and starts in Belzoni, where the population has declined to just 2,300 as the cotton and agriculture industries suffered and poverty has led to poor health, Walton said.
Race relations have improved over the last 45 years, and African-Americans made a coordinated effort to keep Cochran in office out of concern that his challenger, Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, would be less inclusive.
Although Walton was just a little boy when Lee was killed, he said that the fruits of his sacrifice were felt in Tuesday’s election. “There is a song that Sam Cooke sung, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ ” Walton said.
“Who would have thought that in an election for the senator of the state of Mississippi, that blacks have a hand in deciding who that senator will be?”