Bernard Lee, student leader of the Alabama sit-in movement, was Martin Luther King’s personal assistant and traveling companion throughout the 1960s. A member of King’s inner circle, Lee defended King from pushy reporters, shepherded him to engagements, provided a sounding board for new ideas, and readily joined in during spare moments of levity. King publicly commended Lee’s “devotion to civil rights” and made funding Lee’s travel expenses a prerequisite for accepting invitations (King, 63).
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, on 2 October 1935, Lee attended the local public schools. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War and then enrolled in Montgomery’s Alabama State College in 1958. On 25 February 1960, Lee led a group of 35 students to the state capitol, where they attempted to order food at the segregated cafeteria. Alabama’s Governor John Patterson responded by threatening to withhold funding from Alabama State unless the school president, H. Councill Trenholm, expelled Lee and his fellow protesters. The president complied.
King spoke with Lee at a rally the evening after the protest and invited Lee to have dinner with him and his fellow preachers Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. By April, Lee was touring New York with King and had become the chairman of the student division of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, a group committed to fundraising for King’s legal expenses. Lee moved to Atlanta, where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was based, continuing his coursework at Morris Brown College, where he was promptly elected class president.
In October 1960, King and Lee were arrested together while sitting-in at Rich’s, an Atlanta department store. Throughout 1960 and 1961, Lee toured schools and churches throughout the South, speaking on SCLC’s behalf. Although he was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lee left SNCC to work exclusively with SCLC in 1961, becoming the organization’s official student liaison and, later, field secretary. In the summer of 1961, Lee was arrested along with several other SCLC members participating in the Freedom Rides initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality. Later that year, Lee became the first SCLC representative arrested in support of the Albany movement in Albany, Georgia. King was arrested there soon after.
As King’s chief travel companion, Lee accompanied him on “people-to-people” tours, took part in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, and served as King’s representative raising money and recruiting volunteers throughout the nation.
Lee shared high moments ─ such as when King found out he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ─ as well as low ones, when he listened to a tape made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with an accompanying anonymous letter that urged King to commit suicide or face public humiliation. They marched together from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and on the Meredith March against Fear in 1966. When King moved to Chicago in 1966, Lee’s name appeared on the lease to his apartment after several landlords refused to rent to King.
In the months before King was assassinated, Lee worked with him on the Poor People’s Campaign and in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Lee was one of the first to rush to King’s side when he was shot on 4 April 1968, and joined Abernathy at the hospital where King was pronounced dead.
After King’s death, Lee continued to work on the Poor People’s Campaign and later served as vice president of SCLC. Lee joined the Community Services Administration under President Jimmy Carter and was special assistant for religious affairs to Washington D.C.’s Mayor Marion Barry. In 1985, Lee received his master’s in Divinity from Howard University, where he had also earned his bachelor’s degree. Throughout the 1980s, Lee served as chaplain at the Lorton Correctional Complex in Virginia. Lee died of heart failure in 1991, at the age of 55.
Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1989.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Branch, Pillar of Fire, 1998.
King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.