Johnnie Mae Campbell, Rev. George W. Lee Case, and Lamar Smith are just a few of the many black men and women who were murdered by white racist mobs during the civil rights era. A contemporary artist named Nolan Lee has created a series of works to draw attention to their unsolved murder cases.

Lee pairs each pain-filled image with a paragraph about the murder victim. Here is his art and text on Lamar Smith:

Unsolved murder mysteries from the civil rights era.Aug. 13, 1955, Lamar Smith was a World War II veteran, a farmer and a local leader in the black community in Brookhaven, Mississippi. He organized voter registration drives and even campaigned against an incumbent county supervisor. One August day shortly after an election he was downtown on business when he and some white men got in an argument. A number of witnesses saw one of the white men pull out a .38-caliber pistol and shoot Smith at close range. Three men were arrested but went free when none of the witnesses would testify to what they had seen.

Reverend Lamar Smith/Nolan Lee

Lee discovered his artistic technique of burning images onto newspapers quite by accident one Thanksgiving while doing crafts with his family: he accidentally burned a newspaper while experimenting with a wood burning kit. He also learned the fragility of the technique: the danger that the newspaper will catch on fire. In discussing Lee’s process with him, I was struck with how well this particular medium aligns with the subject of Lee’s series, “Unsolved Murder Mysteries of the Civil Rights Era.”

Burning injustice into memory was a huge inspiration for Lee and burning images into newspaper seemed almost a meta-narrative pathway of burning memory into our collective consciousness – a way of burning the image of these murder victims into history, a way to imprint their image into the news where they were largely forgotten. But because of the fragility of the technique, going too far can destroy the image by burning it up – an irony because of the image of the Ku Klux Klan and their fiery torches forever burned into my memory. In addition the question looms as to whether these images can be preserved in this medium.

But whether the newspaper burnings and their strong imagery will last or not, Lee’s passion for the subject continues to trigger him. Be it burning newspapers or painting murals Lee seeks to expose injustice. In his latest mural he created four anguished faces which make up a blindfolded scull, upside down with scales that are tipped and breaking, playing on the lady justice image, which continues on down from there in faces which end in a pile of ash signifying death of human justice from which springs joy and rebirth in a liquid and light which shines brilliantly outward. The mural is difficult to do justice to in any description, here, or depiction on our screens because it is 25 feet by 30 feet.

Unsolved murder mysteries of the civil rights era.

Lady Justice from Death to Rebirth/ Nolan Lee

Lee was first ignited by this subject of unsolved murder mysteries of the civil rights era when he watched the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Instantly moved, he created a piece and sent it off to the director of the documentary, Keith Beauchamp, asking if he could participate. Beauchamp sent him the cases, which he has, case by case, honored in his series.

Unsolved murder mysteries of the civil rights era.

Johnnie Mae Chappell/Nolan Lee

In 2008 he did an art show in Atlanta, Georgia, at the human rights center opening there. Lee says it is in places like the Deep South where he feels people are most passionate about examining racism. He added that he is often struck by the kinds of racist dialogue he is privy to: other white people do not self-censor their racist remarks when they are around him because he is a white man. Other white men have openly criticized him for investigating violent acts perpetrated by white men on people of color. But he says he is American and is interested in American experience, and investigating injustice, no matter what it reveals.

Lee says that at first, he felt very insecure when people didn’t applaud his work, but now feels more of an achievement when they are moved by it. He recognizes that his art may not be a huge sell, but that just compels him to get more creative with it and find different ways of presenting it, such as through the internet.

“There are not a lot of people lining up to fund it, and it is a hard line to navigate even in terms of selling pieces,” he said, adding:

Sadness doesn’t sell, and sometimes people miss the point, but in our culture we don’t mourn enough and sit in the injustice, which stems from avoiding and ultimately perpetuates more pain. But mourning allows you to process. It allows you to see. It allows you to burn images into your memory and the collective conscious of others. We get so removed from everyday life and instead we should step into it and embrace the sadness and injustice so that we can attain a more true happiness. Otherwise what we have is artificial happiness.

Lee told me he once heard a soldier say that he believes civilians have a capacity to understanding a soldier’s suffering: even if the death of a pet was the extent of their suffering, he said, they have suffered and felt sadness, adding, “There is no sadness too little and you don’t have to have experienced my suffering to understand it.”

This really had resonance for Lee who believes that people of all races can and should feel the suffering of the innocent black men and women who were murdered, as well as the suffering of those who loved them and lost them and lived in fear for their own lives. He likens the murders to acts of terrorism and feels in our contemporary world people may be able to identify with this notion more readily if they think of these injustices in that context. Lee hopes that “communing on the sadness can bring people together – it is a moment of vulnerability to sit in the injustice.”

Unsolved murder mysteries of the civil rights era.

The Untold Story of Emmet Luis Till/Nolan Lee

Lee said the case that has haunted him most is the Moores Ford Case from July 25, 1946. Four African Americans were shot repeatedly by 12-15 unmasked men by the Moores Ford Bridge about sixty miles from Atlanta, Georgia. No one has ever been arrested or prosecuted, and it is suspected that many of the murder suspects were sheriff or townspeople.

This case was reopened as recently as 2008, the year when Lee began working on his “Unsolved Murder Mysteries of the Civil Rights Era” series. Perhaps there is more collective consciousness coming to life around these injustices than we know, or perhaps the awareness around them is growing. I know, I for one, will continue to track this case and attempt to learn more about all of the unsolved murder mysteries of the civil rights era following Lee and his series.

He hopes that his work will be looked at, painting by painting, and case by case. “The painting is just the way that people will get into the case, like a book cover,” he said. “The case is way more important than the art.”

To see more of Nolan Lee’s art, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery or go to the artist’s website.

Julie Pepper Lim is a recent master of arts graduate of San Francisco State University in Communication Studies. She is a playwright and a fiction writer and she is currently seeking a publisher for her first novel, entitled, Last Call.


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