A native of Amite County, Mississippi, born in 1922, Louis Allen dropped out of school in the seventh grade to become a logger and part-time farmer. Drafted by the U.S Army in January 1943, he served 19 months in uniform, including combat duty in New Guinea. Upon discharge from service, he returned to his wife and two young children, the beginning of a family that soon increased to six. Although a proud African American, Allen had no part in the civil rights movement that challenged Mississippi’s pervasive system of racial segregation in 1961. He would become a martyr to that movement by coincidence, strictly against his will.
One who joined the Amite County movement willingly was 50 year old Herbert Lee, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and participant in the 1961 voter-registration drive by Robert Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Blacks who sought to vote in Amite County faced intimidation and worse, from racist vigilantes and from Sheriff E.L. Caston Jr., whose deputies raided NAACP meetings and confiscated membership lists. A neighbour of Lee’s farmer E.W. Steptoe, led the local NAACP chapter and complained to the U.S. Department of Justice about Caston’s harassment. On September 24, 1961, Justice attorney John Doar visited Amite County with Robert Moses, interviewing Steptoe and requesting names of any other blacks who had suffered harassment. Herbert Lee’s name was first on the list, but Doar missed him that afternoon, as Lee was called away from home on business. There would never be another chance for them to meet.
Early on September 25, the day after Doar returned to Washington, Lee drove a truckload of cotton to the gin near Liberty, Mississippi. Behind him, as he pulled into the parking lot, was another vehicle occupied by state legislator E.H. Hurst and his son in law, Billy Caston. An argument ensued between Hurst and Lee and climaxed when Hurst drew a pistol and shot Lee once in the head, killing him instantly. Robert Moses later described the event and its aftermath to journalist Howard Zinn.
Lee’s body lay on the ground that morning for two hours, uncovered, until they finally got a funeral home in McComb to take it in. Nobody in Liberty would touch it. They had a coroner’s jury that very same afternoon. Hurst was acquitted. He never spent a moment in jail…I remember reading very bitterly in the papers the next morning, a little item on the front page of the McComb Enterprise-Journal said that a Negro had been shot as he was trying to attack E.H. Hurst. And that was it. Might have thought he’d been a bum. There was no mention that Lee was a farmer, that he had a family, nine kids, beautiful kids, and that he had farmed all his life in Amite County.
One witness to the shooting was Louis Allen, who arrived at the cotton gin moments before Lee was killed. He watched Lee die, then saw a second white man lead E.H. Hurst to a nearby vehicle, whereupon they departed from the scene. Allen retreated to a nearby garage, where one of Liberty’s white residents located him and walked him back to the cotton gin. En route to the crime scene, Allen’s escort told him, ‘They found a tire iron in that nigger’s hand. They found a piece of iron, you hear?’
Allen knew better, but he had a wife and four children to consider. Within the hour, he found himself at the county courthouse, where a coroner’s hearing had been hastily convened. White men armed with pistols packed the hearing room, glaring at Allen as he took the witness stand and lied under oath, confirming the tale that Herbert Allen had been armed, assaulting E.H. Hurst when he was shot. The jury wasted no time in returning the verdict of ‘justifiable homicide.’ Hurst subsequently told the New York Times that he had quarrelled with Lee over $500 debt, which Lee refused to pay. When Lee attacked him with the tire iron.’ Instead, he had struck Lee with the trigger unconsciously.’ Hurst denied Lee’s civil rights activity, dubbing his victim ‘ a smart nigger’ who normally avoided conflict with whites. Guilt-ridden by his false testimony, Allen confessed the lie to his wife and to Robert Moses. Elizabeth Allen described the conversation in a 1964 affidavit, as follows:
The day Herbert Lee was killed, Louis came home and said that they wanted him to testify that Herbert Lee had a piece of iron. He said that Herbert Lee didn’t have no iron. But he said for his family and for his life he had to tell that he had an iron. Louis told me that he didn’t want to tell no story about the dead, because he couldn’t ask them for forgiveness. They had two courts about Herbert Lee’s killing. When they had the second court, Louis did not want to testify. He said he didn’t want to testify no more that a man ad a piece of iron when he didn’t have it, but he said he didn’t have no choice, he was there and he had to go to court. He said he told the FBI the truth, that Herbert Lee didn’t have a piece of iron when he was shot
The ‘second court’ was a state grand jury hearing, convened in Amite County a month after Lee was shot. Allen approached Robert Moses, reporting that he had told his story to FBI agents, suggesting that he could get protection with the Justice Department he would testify truthfully and ‘let the hide go with the hair.’ Moses then telephoned Washington, and heard from Justice that ‘there was no way possible to provide protection for a witness at such a hearing’ )In fact, such protection is routinely offered to witnesses in organised crime cases and similar matters.) Allen went on to repeat his false story before the grand jury, which returned no indictments.
Things went from bad to worse for Allen after that, as Amite County whites apparently learned of his abortive effort to tell the truth. Strangers visited Allen’s home and accosted his children, threatening his life. In June 1962 Allen was arrested on trumped up charges of ‘interfering with the law’; he spent three weeks in jail, and was threatened with lynching, and suffered a broken jaw after one of Sheriff Caston’s deputies struck him with a flashlight. White customers stopped buying logs from Allen, and local merchants cut off his credit at various stores. Only his ailing mother kept Allen from leaving Amite County, but her death in late 1963 freed him at last. Eagerly, Allen made plans to leave Mississippi for Milwaukee, where his brother lived.
Unfortunately, he had already waited too long. On January 1st, 1964, one of Allen’s white creditors stopped at the house to collect a bill payment. While Allen counted out the money, his visitor pointed to Allen’s three year old daughter playing nearby, and remarked, ‘It would be mighty bad if she turned up burnt, wouldn’t it? She’s an innocent baby, but she could get burnt up just like that. I could tell you more, but I’m not. If I was you I would get my rags together in a bundle and leave here.’
Resolved to do exactly that, on January 31, 1964, Allen sought work references from some of his former clients. The first, Melvin Blalock, declined to provide a letter, concerned that he ‘might be helping a communist.’ Another, Lloyd King, later recalled speaking to Allen around 8:10 pm. Two cars were seen trailing Allen’s pickup when he left King’s farm, driving home. At the foot of his long driveway, Allen left his truck to open the gate, then apparently threw himself under the vehicle. The move failed to save him, as two shotgun blasts ripped into his face. Son Henry Allen found his father’s body hours later, when he returned from a dance.
No suspects in Louis Allen’s murder were never identified, but Robert Moses placed partial blame for the slaying on the FBI’s doorstep. Moses and other activists believed that G-men routinely leaked the contents of confidential statements to local police in civil rights cases, thus leaving witnesses vulnerable to attack by racist authorities or the vigilante Ku Klux Klan. The segregationist McComb Enterprise-Journal theory in its description of the murder, noting that ‘Strictly non-documented rumours have been current that Allen may have become a ‘tip-off man’ for the integration-minded Justice Department. Similarly, of the spearheads of a reported complaint that ‘economic pressure’ being applied against some Amite County Negroes.’