Leslie McLemore II (right) pays tribute to his father, Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore as he turns 80 this week. The son writes about his dad’s hard work alongside Fannie Lou Hamer for civil rights for Black Mississippi, as well as being a very special role model. Photo courtesy Leslie McLemore II.

Happy 80th Birthday to Dr. Leslie McLemore, Civil Rights Hero and My Dad

Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore was born in Walls, Miss., on Aug. 17, 1940.

Walls is a small town, with no more than 1,500 people occupying it. I’ve been there plenty of times. As a kid, my father would take me there to visit, and we would ride through the town, as he joyfully pointed out spots or homes or structures that were near and dear to his heart.

And as a kid, it wasn’t very impressive.

I would pretend to be engaged, put on this display of fictional relevance while glancing at an old, dilapidated house in desperate need of repair, or a small church I would always assume had no central air conditioning, and the only way to keep cool while worshipping would be to repetitively wave a paper fan—with a generic image of clouds to represent heaven or something—at your face. 

But Dad was proud to come from this simplicity. So, I felt I had to be proud, too. But this sense of proud tradition baffled me. I guess I understood the connection point of being born and raised there, but no, not really. Why would he be proud to come from a town that’s not much of anything? As a kid, I wanted to ask him this, but I was too afraid to disappoint him.

I didn’t want to take his joy.

Front Lines of the War for Black Humanity

In September 1960, the future Dr. McLemore began his studies at Rust College in Holly Springs in North Mississippi. His time at Rust started this lifelong obsession with attaining equity for Black Mississippians. Full of youth and energy, Dad participated in boycotts, which included boycotting a theater because they refused to sit Black folks in the downstairs section. 

Being on the front lines of this war for black humanity would eventually lead to him joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in various activities including voter-registration drives. The future Dr. McLemore served as northern regional coordinator for the 1963 Freedom Ballot campaign.

Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore used to take his son, Leslie, to the small town of Walls where he grew up. His boy didn’t understand the appeal now. Photo courtesy Leslie McLemore II.

My father knew Black Mississippi equity couldn’t be obtained without the power to vote. Something so precious must be important, right? Or else why would white folks continue to try to take it away? But this understanding didn’t hit me until later in life, when portions of this country began restricting voting rights (again). My father had tried to warn me. He put the right books in my hand for me to read and digest, so I could appreciate the rights he fought for his future son and all future Black sons and daughters. 

My father fought for my voting rights. He fought to make it simple and possible for me to vote in Mississippi. But Mississippi (and other places) continue to try to make voting complicated in order to make it harder for many of us to vote.

Voting and voting registration were important to the young, future Dr. McLemore. And there were and still are so many reasons why, including selecting those who fit your representation. Voting also means you are exercising your voice for or against paramount issues that affect marginalized communities like health-care access, affordable housing, school funding, etc.

Voting allows us to decide on state and local ballot measures that could directly impact our way of life. Voting equates to resources. It always has, it always will. Democracies are usually set up that way, even if the democracy is draped in white supremacy. And without resources, Black equity can’t be achieved. 

My father knew this. And racist white folks knew this. And therefore, his and his colleagues’ lives, livelihood and health were in danger, as they bled Black Mississippi blood, cried Black Mississippi tears and endured Black Mississippi struggles to streamline easier Black Mississippi participation in Mississippi voting booths.

Helping Sister Fannie Lou Birth Freedom 

In 1964, the future Dr. McLemore was intimately involved in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). He was a founding member of the MFDP Executive Committee, an MFDP delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and vice chair of the party. Before the convention, he worked alongside civil-rights activists and legends like Ella Baker, Frank Smith, Eleanor Homes Norton, and Charlies Sherrod as coordinator and lobbyist of the National Office of the MFDP in Washington, D.C. 

At the convention, MFDP delegates lobbied and argued their case, and large groups of supporters and volunteers established an around-the-clock picket line on the boardwalk just outside the convention. Their actions attracted considerable publicity. The credentials committee televised its proceedings, which allowed the nation to see and hear the testimony of the MFDP delegates, particularly the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer. She gave a moving and evocative portrayal of her personal hardship as a black Mississippian, including life as a sharecropper on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta and the retaliation inflicted on her for trying to register her and others to vote.

When my father started the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Institute at Jackson State University in 1997, I didn’t truly understand why. Well, I knew why. It was to teach professors, high school teachers, and students the sheer importance and gravity of the Movement. But I guess I didn’t fully understand why he would name it after this woman. I had heard about her name in passing, but except for “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” nothing really stood out.

Today, I’m ashamed to have been so damn ungrateful.

The valor and heroism Sister Fannie Lou demonstrated, even in the face of domestic terrorism, on June 9, 1963, when she was arrested for attempting to integrate the public facilities at the Winona bus station in Montgomery County should not only be appreciated, but it should be just as well known as the March from Selma. There, Hamer was taken to a cell where police ordered two inmates to beat her with a blackjack. 

Even though the horrific incident had profound physical and psychological effects, Hamer turned her beating into a powerful weapon when she recounted, at the National Democratic Convention, the problems she had encountered with voter registration, as well as the horrid ordeal of being nearly beaten to death in a Winona jail.

Fannie Lou Hamer is a deity among mere mortals. Because of her contributions and “I don’t give a shit” bravery, her image should stand alongside civil-rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ida Wells-Barnett on the Mount Rushmore of the Civil Rights Movement. Her importance should never be forgotten, and my father made sure of that.

My father’s Hamer Institute was at the center of teaching of the Civil Rights Movement for over 20 years.

After Retiring, Dad Made History Again

After obtaining his master’s degree in political science from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta), the future Dr. McLemore became, well, Dr. McLemore when he received a doctorate in government from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

At Amherst, he helped to establish the W.E.B. DuBois Department of African American Studies. He would later go on to obtain post-doctoral fellowships at Johns Hopkins University and at Harvard University. He then took a position teaching at THEE Jackson State University as the founding chair of the Department of Political Science, and then as dean of the graduate school and founding director of the Office of Research.

Dr. Leslie McLemore fought for the right of his son to be able to safely vote some day in Mississippi. Courtesy Leslie McLemore II.

Dr. McLemore later served on the Jackson City Council, representing the second ward and becoming council president. Upon the death of former Jackson Mayor Frank Melton, he also served as acting mayor. He did not seek re-election to his council seat, with his term as both city councilman and interim mayor ending in July 2009. 

Dad concluded his service at Jackson State as the interim president of the institution. He is published in the areas of Black politics, southern politics, environmental politics and the Civil Rights Movement, including co-authoring “Freedom Summer, A Brief History with Documents.” After retiring from Jackson State, McLemore returned to Walls where in 2017, Dr. McLemore, once again, made history by serving as the first Black elected official in Walls, Miss. He serves as a member of the Walls Board of Alderman. 

‘You’re Too Smart for This Shit’ 

When my father became a prominent political figure in Jackson, admittedly, I admired him even more. Not because he managed to successfully navigate the rough seas of Jackson politics or keep at bay this or that political opponent or pass this or that city ordinance.

What I admired most during his tenure was his ability to still be a father.

My mother and father weren’t married for long after I was born. In fact, my first-ever memory was ignited because there was a sudden change in my surroundings. I guess my toddler brain went from a two-parent household to wondering what I was doing in this cramped apartment with my father on some days and then with my mother on other days. But it was never traumatizing. It was just different.

Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore walks with his granddaughter Harper. Photo courtesy Leslie McLemore II.

Growing up in two households, which were 10-minute drives from each other, never felt wrong, because that’s all I knew. I knew my mom’s house, and I knew my dad’s house. And both households were consistent. Both households were full of food, love, toys and video games. And my parents were consistent, including my father, who consistently stayed my father even when the duty of public service called for Dr. McLemore. We continued ordering Chinese food (shrimp fried rice, shrimp and lobster sauce with extra soy sauce) on the weekends; he continued sacrificing his movie enjoyment by taking me to see what I wanted to see. 

He continued driving us to Memphis or putting us on a plane to Washington, D.C., or Disney World or the Bahamas; he continued taking me to Capital City Classics; he continued attending my tennis matches or basketball games; he continued being concerned about the stutter that plagued me for most of my childhood; he continued to be concerned about my complacency toward schoolwork by reminding me that, “You’re too smart for this shit.” 

So, wait, does this mean I won? Does this mean I beat all the achievements and awards and power and prestige Dr. McLemore obtained over the years? I don’t know. Maybe. You’ll have to ask him. But I feel like I won. Maybe the title of father is more important to him than the title of Dr. McLemore. So, the world and state of Mississippi can keep calling him Dr. McLemore. I’ll continue to call him father.

‘That’s His Big Heart Talking’

I finally got the courage to ask my father why is he so proud to come from Walls, Mississippi? What made him move back to a town that doesn’t offer much except that it’s his birthplace? 

Dr. Leslie Burl McLemore (right) was a good fathering role model for his son Leslie (right) and his two daughters. Also pictured is Dr. McLemore’s granddaughter Harper McLemore. Photo courtesy Leslie McLemore II.

He said that he simply identified with his mother and grandfather, the two most influential figures in his life, growing up. There is land there in Walls. Land that’s still in the family. This strong sentimentality is foreign to me, and honestly, based on the person I know, it should be foreign to him. But this strong identification with his mother and grandfather overrides that. 

His big heart appreciates the sentiments that Walls, Miss., provides. He remembers Christmas time in Walls. He remembers his mother baking cakes, listening to Christmas songs by Charles Brown. 

That’s his big heart talking. The same big heart that made him love Mississippi folks, Black Mississippi folks and his Black Mississippi son.

Love you, Dad. Happy 80th Birthday. 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to donna@mississippifreepress.com. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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