A few weeks ago, someone posted a link on Facebook about Herbert Lee, an African American civil rights activist in Mississippi who was shot and killed in 1961 by E.H. Hurst, a White man who never was charged with the crime, much less paid for it. (Here’s a link to information about Lee and the crime. )
Well, recently a marker was placed at the spot of Lee’s murder, to commemorate the crime. For me, this sort of event is filed underneath the “God Be A Witness” label. Surely, sending the person to prison who killed someone is important, but to me, most important is that this person who tried to help his little corner of the world–Herbert Lee–not be forgotten.
A friend of mine, the poet Jake Adam York has written two books of poetry commemorating slain Civil Rights heroes. He’s from Alabama, and is doing vital work on reconciliation and history memory.
I’ve been meaning to have a podcast with Jake, ever since April, and haven’t gotten around to it because I am so busy I think I am going crazy, but when Jake sent me his poem that he had written on Herbert Lee, I knew I had to share it with y’all and I asked his permission to post it. It is a beautiful poem, written by a do-right man who is trying to bring justice to the world through his art; I think that’s important, and I hope you do, too.
Jake’s poem is below.
……21 September 1961, Liberty, Mississippi
Everyone will say he drove to the gin
with a truck full of cotton, so he drives to the gin
and gets in line, and everyone will say
the congressman pulled in behind him, so he gets out
yelling Herbert Lee I’m not messing with you this time,
and his affidavit will say Lee had a tire iron
and there are no photographs so there is
a tire iron and since the congressman will say
Lee swung at him his hand will grasp the iron
under the tangle of his own dead weight
and the congressman will leave and will not
see him again so he just lies there bleeding
and no one will touch him so for a time
he is just a story or a huddle of starlings
or crows or a cloud of bottle flies that might
explode and disappear until the witnesses
can say he’s there and an undertaker can come
with a hearse from the next county over
and then he is dead and the congressman can
tell his story so Herbert Lee will rise
from his coffin and swing his iron
and the FBI can come to make him into evidence
but someone will have roped him into his grave
so there is no photograph and no one sees
the cotton boll wicking blood so there is no boll
only a clear, white negative in the dark
and a paper that slowly fills with flies.