Thursday, December 02, 2010

‘Iconic Day’ In Liberty: Miss. Civil Rights Martyr Herbert Lee Honored

 Jerel Harris, Enterprise-Journal Herbert Lee’s widow, Prince E. Lee of Kenner, La., stands at the historical marker dedicated Saturday in memory of her husband, the late Herbert Lee, a voting rights activist who was killed at a Liberty cotton gin.

‘Iconic Day’ In Liberty

Posted: Monday, November 29, 2010 3:00 pm

Ernest Herndon, Enterprise-Journal

LIBERTY — Hundreds of people, black and white, gathered Saturday to dedicate a historical marker commemorating the late Herbert Lee, a voting rights activist who was gunned down at an old cotton gin in 1961.

Inside what is now the Cotton Gin Restaurant, people heard speeches, proclamations, songs, prayers and reminiscences from Lee’s family and friends.

“Forty-nine years in a city called Liberty — how ironic — after such a devastating tragedy that will forever resonate in our hearts and minds, we are here for the unveiling of a historical marker,” said Lee’s daughter, Ruby Lee Johnson of Woodbridge, Va. “Now that is something to celebrate.

“We may not be where we want to be, but we are certainly not where we were 49 years ago.”

Lee was shot to death Sept. 25, 1961, at the old Westbrook Cotton Gin in broad daylight in front of about a dozen witnesses, black and white. His killer, the late state Rep. E.H. Hurst, was exonerated that day by a coroner’s jury and never charged.

Lee is survived by his wife, 93-year-old Prince Lee of Kenner, La., and seven children, most of whom attended Saturday’s ceremony.

The gin was approved first for a state historical marker — which was dedicated Saturday — and then for a National Register of Historic Places plaque, which Cotton Gin owner Johnnie Powell said she will erect as well.

Ruby Johnson was 9 years old when her father was killed. Her mother had to provide for eight children (one now deceased) on her own.

“I never saw her instill one word of hatefulness in us,” Johnson said,

“The difficult thing for me personally was having to grow up in a community and live with the person who we knew beyond the shadow of a doubt had killed my daddy.”

But Johnson expressed a spirit of reconciliation rather than resentment. “Evil for evil, stone for stone — it doesn’t do any good,” she said to applause.

The Rev. Herbert Lee Jr. of Olympia Fields, Ill., was 12 that day. He described his father as a man of integrity, wisdom and strength, a perfectionist and an entrepreneur who ran his own farm and dairy.

“I’m not here to pour salt in an old wound. I’m just here to reflect on this wonderful father,” Lee said.

“We have to go on, and this is a good place to start. We have to learn to forgive.”

He mused on the origins of his hometown’s name.

“Somebody thought that Liberty should be a place for freedom,” Lee said. “Thank God Liberty is getting ready to live up to her name.”

He pointed out the changes in race relations since his childhood. Noting that a white woman hugged him prior to the program, Lee said, “I used to would have to go to the other side of the street.”

He concluded with a declaration of loyalty for his home.

“I love this city. I love Mississippi. I mean, I ‘sho-nuff’ love Mississippi. In spite of. I’m still a Mississippian,” Lee said to applause.

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The event began with the National Anthem sung by Rickey Powell, prayer by the Rev. Hilton Taplin and a welcome by Liberty alderman Charlie Brister.

Liberty Area Chamber of Commerce president Teresa Kelly called the event “a blessed day.”

Kelly said when she became chamber president she noticed there were no black members. “It wasn’t because of ill feelings. It was because the whites were doing their thing and the black were doing their thing,” she said.

Mrs. Powell became the first black chamber member and helped recruit eight more.

“Let’s join together now,” Kelly said. “Times are hard, and that’s the only way we’re going to make a change is by working together.”

McComb Mayor Zach Patterson read a proclamation from the city board commemorating Lee. “Without the sacrifices of men like Herbert Lee, I wouldn’t be standing before you as mayor today,” said Patterson, McComb’s first black mayor.

Amite County Chancery Clerk Ronny Taylor read a proclamation by Rep. Angela Cockerham — an African-American woman who holds the same position that E.H. Hurst did — honoring Lee as “a community hero.”

The proclamation cites “the dawn of an iconic new day” and commends the Lee family and the Cotton Gin Restaurant.

Taylor praised Mrs. Powell “for converting a drafty old building into a wonderful restaurant, and it’s become a cornerstone of our community, not just a restaurant.”

Taylor also offered his personal condolences to the Lee family for their loss.

Lee family friend Mary Williams said she was working in a cafe on Main Street a block away on the day of the shooting. “This incident changed our lives as well as many others in Amite County, and possibly all over the nation,” she said.

“Mr. Lee died for a worthy cause that would one day give blacks the right to vote.”

Other speakers were Bill Gatlin of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, local historian James Allen Causey, civil rights activist Curtis Hayes Muhammad and Lee family friends Ruth Robinson, Lavelt Steptoe and Plato Robinson.

Lee’s daughter Wilma Lee Allen concluded the indoor portion of the ceremony by singing her father’s favorite song, “I Am Happy with Jesus Alone.”

Following the speeches, the crowd gathered outside for the unveiling of the marker, sang “God Bless America,” then returned inside for refreshments.

© Copyright 2010,, McComb, MS.

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