MEMPHIS, Tenn. (localmemphis.com) – The Lee sisters from Memphis, Tennessee were pioneers of the civil rights movement. More than 50 years later, they remain proud of their title as “Most Arrested Civil Rights Family” in the United States.
“Jet Magazine,” a popular weekly for Black Americans, gave the freedom-fighting sisters that moniker after they were carted off to jail nearly 20 times. Their only crime was standing up to racial injustices by sitting-in at libraries and lunch counters.
The Lee sisters were teenagers in a racially-charged 1960s south. Not only did their courage through activism get them trips to jail, it also got them blackballed from jobs.
“Nobody questioned should we do this?” said Elaine Lee Turner. “It was when. Let’s do it.”
We spoke with Brenda Lee Turner, Peggy Jayne Lee, and Elaine Lee Turner, three of the seven Lee sisters. Together with sisters Sandra Lee Swift, Joan Lee Nelson, Earnestine Lee Henning, and the late Susan Lee, they were arrested 17 times between 1960 and 1966.
“We grew up in an environment where there was a close family,” said Elaine Lee Turner. “We talked about how things should be and were not, and if we ever got a chance to make a difference, we would do that.”
That chance came in 1960. The eldest sister, Earnestine Lee, led her sisters into the civil rights fight when she joined schoolmates from Lemoyne College during a sit-in at one of Memphis’ white-only libraries.
“We knew we were ready for that,” said Brenda Lee Turner.
With their parents’ support, the Lee sisters would spend the next six years marching, picketing, and sitting-in.
“We had picketed so many times,” said Peggy Jayne Lee. “Picketing is just what we did all the time.”
The Lee sisters have been lauded as pioneers of the civil rights movement in Memphis, honored with trophies, plaques, and proclamations from various organizations, including a historic marker aptly placed on Main Street in Downtown Memphis, where they helped integrated lunch counters.
“As we sat down, they would put closed signs on the restaurant counter. We’d move on to the other one, they would put closed there. We would just make our rounds from one to the other to the next one.”
The Lee sisters knew change had to happen and soon.
“I felt that we had a certain amount of power because we were on the side of right,” said Elaine Lee Turner.
The sisters said they would see the same lunch counter employees day after day, who never acknowledged the protestors. “They knew we were right, but they nevertheless had to hold on to these old ideas.”
Peggy Jayne Lee was the youngest of the sisters. At the age of 16, she joined her sisters in protests. She recalls the horrifying experience of marching with James Evers in Mississippi. “You would see a truck roll by with white men on it with guns,” said Peggy Jayne Lee. “So, it impacted me that this was a serious thing that was going on.”
As a family, the Lee’s frequently discussed the dangers faced in protests, but the vicious tension of those moments brought new meaning to their fight.
“That there were actually people who were ready to kill us, and when they looked at us and hurled insults at us, they meant it,” said Peggy Jane Lee.
Being arrested was one thing, but the possibility of being killed for what they believed was another.
“Our parents believed in God, had strong faith in God,” said Brenda Lee Turner. “They were prayerful, and they understood the danger more than we did because of their growing up.”
The sisters leaned on the prayers and faith of their parents because their legacy required them to speak out and act.
“So, we just stepped on out each day like it was our mission and it was our time to do this,” said Brenda Lee Turner.
“I had no fear during those times,” said Elaine Lee Turner. “The only thing I thought they were going to do was arrest me, and that was no problem as far as I was concerned.”
The Lee sisters say they would do it all again.
Sisters Elaine Lee Turner and Joan Lee Nelson co-founded Heritage Tours and Slave Haven Museum in Memphis, where they teach visitors from around the world Black History year-round.
Peggy Jayne Lee is a practicing attorney and professor at Historically Black Lemoyne-Owen College.
The entire Lee family supports recent efforts in towns and cities across the country to bring down Confederate statues and the protest of police brutality.