Nov. 8, 1955

NAACP leader Gus Courts lying in hospital in Mound Bayou in critical condition after being shot, November 26, 1955. Credit: Library of Congress

Six months after nightriders gunned down his friend and fellow civil rights leader, the Rev. George Lee, for helping Black citizens register to vote, Gus Courts dared to lead 22 Black Mississippians to vote in a tiny Delta town, which bore the nickname, “Bloody Belzoni.” Courts knew this march could mean his death, but he made the trek anyway. 

When he and Lee had started the first branch of the NAACP in Humphreys County in 1953, no Black Mississippian was registered to vote there. The pair decided to change that, bringing 400 Black Mississippians to pay their poll taxes, the first step toward voter registration. 

Upset by this, the white Citizens’ Council began to put an economic squeeze on them, getting banks to refuse credit or to foreclose on their mortgages. Most removed their names, and when Lee was killed, even more followed suit. Courts heard that anyone who set foot on the courthouse lawn would be shot, but he and 22 others still marched to vote. 

After they arrived, clerks demanded to know if they wanted their children to go to school with white children and if they belonged to the NAACP. It didn’t matter what their answers were; the clerks refused to let any of them vote. 

But the reign of terror didn’t end there. Weeks later, not far from where Lee had been hit with shotgun blasts, nightriders opened fire on Courts, who bled profusely and had to be whisked to a Black hospital 80 miles away. He survived, and he and his wife fled Mississippi. 

“I’m 65 years old, and I’ve never had the vote,” he told a reporter. “That’s all I wanted.” 

He testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, “We are the American refugees from the terror in the South, all because we wanted to vote.” He said leaders of the white Citizens’ Council told him, they would put him out of business, bar Black voters and kick out the NAACP. 

He died in 1969, never returning to the Mississippi he loved.

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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.