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|Rev. Robert Lee on Obama's election: 'I never thought such a day would come'|
The Rev. Robert Lee Jr., who turned 95 in August, never expected in his lifetime to see American voters given the opportunity to do what they did on Tuesday.
"I never thought such a day would come," said Lee. "The country has changed."
The election of the first black President in the history of the U.S. -- Barack Obama -- may be best expressed in one simple word, he said: "Understanding."
Electing a black President seems even greater in one sense, Lee says, than an event 62 years ago when he did something that changed his life forever.
Fresh out of the Army during World War II and living in New Orleans at the time, Lee was one of 12 men in Jefferson Parish to register to vote. In an action sponsored by the NAACP, 14 black men walked into the Registrar of Voters Office one Saturday morning in 1946.
"We had some initial meetings about it and had a meeting the week before," said Lee. "We were tutored on what to expect. We were told to wear our every day clothes, and to make sure they were clean. We were told to use the restrooms before we went because we weren't allowed to use the facilities there. We were also told to accept whatever humiliation that came our way."
And the humiliation came.
Lee and the other men stood for four hours waiting to register. They were not allowed to sit.
When the registrar began the registration process he told the men, "Don't ask me a damn thing."
Of the 14 who lined up, 12 were registered but two were rejected.
"We don't know why," he said "They didn't tell us anything. We were all afraid, but we all did it."
Lee later returned home to Concordia where in the early 1950s he and four other black men were the first to vote in the parish. Lee voted in Clayton, John Wickiffe and Henry Montgomery, the president of the Concordia NAACP, voted in Ferriday and Jim Lee voted in Vidalia.
Of the four, Rev. Lee is the only man still living.
He lived through the turmoil of the Civil Rights years in Concordia in the 1960s when sweeping new laws allowing the integration of public facilities and schools were met with a full-court resistance from most public officials and much of the white public.
"But there were always white people who helped us along the way," said Lee. "A lot of white people did what they could behind closed doors. It was a difficult time and they didn't want to be called a 'nigger-lover.' Black people and many white people were afraid."
And, said Lee, there was a good reason to be fearful.
A 25-year-old Vidalia Shamrock Motel employee, Joseph "JoeEd" Edwards, who once rode Lee's parish school bus to the all black Sevier High School in Ferriday, disappeared in July 1964 and was believed murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. His body has never been found.
Lee's friend Frank Morris was murdered six months later in December 1964 during the arson of Morris' shoe shop. That unsolved cold case was reopened by the FBI in March 2007.
As many as 12 men were considered as persons of interest by the FBI in Morris' murder.
But great change has come about in America, and in Concordia, during the past decades, says Lee.
"Maybe time brought about these changes," said Lee. "We got away from the idea of slavery. The Negro and the white were strangers to each other. In many ways, blacks were not considered as true human beings. I think what changed was that we began to understand one another. It was never just white against black but it was a system that we were dealing with."
Despite the tumultuous years of the past, Lee said he has "no bitterness. I'm thankful we survived to this point. I'm thankful there were white people who helped us. It was white people and black people who elected our new President."
His feelings on the changes of the past years, particularly the election of Obama on Tuesday, he said, "are so hard to put into words."
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