Sixty years ago, in 1961, a Mississippi legislator named E. H. Hurst gunned down Herbert Lee in rural Amite County. Hurst and Lee were the same age. Both men worked as farmers and raised their families in close proximity to one another. They had been acquaintances all their lives and were respected in their respective communities.
This was the segregated South, and Amite County was Klan country. Hurst was white, and Lee was black. In most ways, despite the similarities, these two men lived in different universes. Lee referred to Hurst as “Mr. Hurst,” while Hurst called Lee “Herbert,” a common southern white tradition of not giving blacks the respect of a title. Hurst expected Lee to know his place, a subjugated and inferior one, in which Lee did as he was told.
Twenty-six years later, Hurst told me in an interview that Lee had been a “good, responsible n****r” until that “son of a b***h” started working with voter registration, transportation and other projects. Hurst warned Lee to back down from civil rights work, but Lee was undeterred.
Things came to a boil when Hurst went to Lee’s farm under the ruse of collecting on a $500 debt. At this point, the stories vary. Hurst told me that an argument ensued, Lee swung at him with a tire tool, and Hurst’s loaded .38 caliber “went off accidentally.”
Louis Allen, a black friend of Lee, saw the killing. He was intimidated by local law enforcement to support the claim of self-defense. When the FBI became involved, Allen mistakenly talked to the press and revealed his plans to testify that the incident was a cold-blooded murder. This mistake was deadly. Allen was harassed three times by police and then beaten by white thugs. The FBI kept Allen under surveillance, but even the FBI had Klan sympathizers. With threats constant, Allen planned to leave the state under witness protection only to be found dead in his front yard. Three shotgun blasts had killed him. There were no suspects identified, no arrests, and no trial for the murder of Allen.
As to the shooting of Lee, an all white and male jury acquitted Hurst, sending him home to live a long life.
Bob Moses, a leader of the local movement at the time, said that Lee’s obituary made him sound like “a bum. There was no mention he had nine kids, beautiful kids, that he had been a farmer all his life in Amite County, and he had been a substantial citizen.”
No, there was no redemption for Herbert Lee. He was buried in Mount Pilgrim Cemetery, not far from where he lived and died. Black lives did not matter in 1961, and sixty years later, many new generations either don’t care or don’t know of our state’s and country’s unforgivable legacy.
Nevertheless, my hope and prayer is that young men and women today will learn Southern history and in return, help forge a better society for all Americans.
Clark Hicks is a lawyer who lives in Hattiesburg. His email is email@example.com.