Champion for Aberdeen civil rights laid to rest

By Ray Van Dusen | Monroe Journal

ABERDEEN – History books paint the picture of boycotts and sit-ins across the South during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Church bombings and slayings of those working to end racial injustice left wounds still left to heal 50 years later.
While on a larger recognized scale, places like Montgomery and Selma, Ala., and names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers are burned into most people’s memories, the grassroots activists of the movement will always remain legends in their own small towns.
Following General Lee Young’s return to Aberdeen from serving in World War II, being denied the right to vote struck a nerve that slowly began the local movement for equal rights.
“My mother expressed him as a warrior. Whatever the people in Aberdeen needed, he was there. He made sure there was a meeting place for those tired of working for the white people, but having to use the back door to do so,” said Bernice Thompson.
Young died Aug. 24 in Holly Springs at age of 89 after battling frail health for years. During a 2007 interview with the Aberdeen Examiner, he estimated to be born on Feb. 22, 1911. Aberdeen came out Saturday to pay respects at his funeral.
Tensions in the bigger cities during the ’50s and ’60s were stretched just as tight in Aberdeen. Water fountains and restrooms were designated for whites and for coloreds. Blacks could only patronize local restaurants by picking up food from the back door or sitting in the very back.
“That way of acting was a religion to most of the white people,” said Bishop Eugene Sacus. “They believed what they were doing was God’s way of living. As long as you went to the back door of businesses and said, ‘yes sir’ and ‘no ma’am,’ you were all right.”
While the white side of town had running water, several members of the community recalled having to use outside toilets on the south side. Suing for equal treatment on the issue was one of the accomplishments Young rallied for throughout most of his life.
“He wasn’t a military general, but he was a six-star general for Aberdeen,” said Pastor John Barrentine.
Young’s real name was George, but General stuck since that’s what his grandfather called him.
Some of the issues Young fought for included equal education opportunities, equal employment, voter registration and improvement of the quality of life for Aberdeen residents. He was the first black man to enter a bank downtown.
“He wasn’t a prejudiced man,” said Jeremy Belle. “He fought for all people who were treated wrong. Sometimes when he’d talk about the NAACP, he’d leave off the ‘C’.”
While James Carr Sr. was instrumental in the academics of initiating a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Young was instrumental in the legwork.
“Once he got ahold of it, he was like a bulldog,” Thompson said.
In 1964, Young helped start north Mississippi’s first NAACP chapter with its original 25 members paying membership dues of 25 cents. He served as president of the Aberdeen chapter for years until his health wouldn’t allow it any longer.
“General was able to get a house for our meetings and I remember leaving there one night right before it was hit with a gas bomb,” Sacus said.
It was also in 1964 when black and white students from Washington, D.C., and New York filtered into the south to work on passing the Voting Rights Act during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The students worked closely with Young and others in Aberdeen.
Aside from his work in Aberdeen, Young followed the movement from key points in Alabama and Mississippi, marched in Washington, D.C., and was with Martin Luther King Jr. the day he was assassinated.
Young even helped identify the bodies of Emmitt Till and the three slain civil rights activists in Philadelphia.
Morgan Chapel was the only church that supported Young’s movement in the ’60s. He remained true to the church throughout the years and even created a makeshift religious scene housed in an old microwave done up to be “Morgan Chapel Church on Wheels” in the back of his truck.
Young would drive his truck around town on voting days, urging people to go vote as he blared it out through a bull horn.
During the ’80s, Young rallied the NAACP for a boycott of businesses in Aberdeen.
“It all started when he took some girls to the bank and they wouldn’t hire them,” said T.J. Moore, who worked with Young for 35 years at a saw mill. “He said the Bible didn’t see discrimination, but I don’t guess the bank saw the same. Young put his neck on the line. He worked hard all day and had to sleep under the house or up in a tree at night. He caught the devil.”
Harold Holliday, who served as vice president under Young in the NAACP for some time, said when there was a problem with black people, they would protest.
“At the same time the schools let the students out for Martin Luther King Day, but the teachers had to stay for staff development meetings. Back then, sometimes you’d be followed into stores.”
Although Young is gone, his name will always be attached to an Aberdeen landmark. The Board of Aldermen voted to rename the park on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to General Lee Young Park in 1997.
“We dedicated the park during my first term as alderman,” said Cloyd Garth. “As a young man, he would tell me what he had been through. He walked the walk. It was because of him that I went into politics.”
Young’s name and influence will live on for years after his death just as well.
“We don’t need to let what he started die. We want his memory to live on like Martin Luther King Jr.,” Thompson said.
ray.vandusen@journalinc.com