Sept. 25, 1961

Herbert Lee and his wife, Prince Melson Lee, are pictured in this photo. A Mississippi historical marker now honors Lee. Credit: Used by permission. Zinn Education Project

Herbert Lee became the first local person killed because of his fight for voting rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

Before SNCC’s work began, only one Black Mississippian had been registered to vote in Amite County. Lee stood up to change that, working with SNCC leader Bob Moses to help register Black voters. 

Days later, the dairy farmer and father of nine pulled up to a cotton gin with a truckload of cotton, and his neighbor and childhood friend, E. H. Hurst, a member of the white Citizens’ Council and a representative in the Mississippi Legislature, approached Lee with a gun in his hand. 

“I won’t talk to you unless you put that gun down,” Lee was quoted as saying before Hurst charged forward and shot him. 

Hurst’s father-in-law happened to be Billy Ray Caston, a cousin of the local sheriff who had attacked Moses days earlier with the blunt end of a knife after Moses had taken two more Black Americans to the courthouse to register to vote. 

Hurst fatally shot Lee, claiming that he was acting in self-defense after Lee brandished a tire iron. Hurst’s story sounded more than a little improbable — he claimed he hit Lee in the head with a .38-caliber pistol and that the gun accidentally discharged, killing Lee. 

Although there were Black witnesses to the shooting, the sheriff intimidated them into supporting Hurst’s story, and the local coroner’s jury refused to indict him. 

At Lee’s funeral, his wife came up to Moses and said, “You killed my husband!” Moses had no reply and said later, “It is one thing to get beaten, quite another to be responsible, even indirectly, for a death.” 

Lee’s death was honored by Bertha Gober in the song, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” which became the SNCC anthem in Mississippi. He is among the 40 martyrs listed on the National Civil Rights Memorial.

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Debbie is a veteran journalist, who worked over 30 years at the Clarion Ledger, first as a reporter and then as an editor overseeing breaking news, business and investigative projects. She left the CL as news director in 2018 to become managing editor of the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and joined Mississippi Today on Oct. 1, 2022, to become its first justice team editor.

The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.