Civil rights activist Lee Willa Miller dies

Published 7:07 pm Thursday, September 27, 2018

Vicksburg lost one of its leaders with the death of civil rights activist Lee Willa Miller, who died Sept. 23, 2018, at Heritage House Nursing Center at the age of 101.

“Lee Willa Miller was one of the pillars of this community, and she was very instrumental in the civil rights struggle during the 60s” said Henry Hunter, who was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

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“She played an important role in the Warren County Improvement League; she was trying to get things done; get people elected to office and people registered to vote.”

A member of Pleasant Green Baptist Church, Miller met Pink Taylor, who told her she needed to join the NAACP and paid her first dues. She became very involved in the NAACP, serving as membership chairman and worked with voter registration.

A quiet leader

In a Vicksburg Post article about her mother for the 100th anniversary of the Vicksburg Branch of the NAACP, Miller’s daughter, Beverly Gaskin, recalled how her mother kept her activities with the NAACP quiet.

“You were doing things in secret,” she said. “You couldn’t let the place where you worked know you were with the NAACP or anything of that nature, and people would always ask different ones (people) if she was a member, and they would tell them ‘no.’”

During this time, Gaskin said, her mother worked as a catering cook at the YMCA on Clay Street.

Besides helping register voters, Miller also talked with people interested in running for office.

“We saw a lot in our house, but I realized she hid a lot of things from us as children,” Gaskin said, “because she did not want us to know or somebody question us to go out and talk. Some things she did not tell my father, because she feared that somebody would harm him.”

Miller, her daughter said, was one of the people instrumental in getting Dr. Martin Luther King to speak at Pleasant Green.

Gaskin said her mother continued to work registering voters and encouraging people to run for office. She was also a member of the PTA at Rosa A. Temple High School and worked to get new uniforms for the school’s band. She also worked on the city Democratic Executive Board and also made sure her children and grandchildren registered to vote, taking them to register.

Remembered fondly

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said he has known Miller all his life.

“Having grown up in Vicksburg, I know her from her civil rights work, and how she was a pioneer,” he said. “I consider her to be a very courageous and progressive lady. None of us would have had the opportunity to be elected if not for her — black and white and Democrat and Republican.

“Black or white, they went by her to seek her counsel on running for office. The people gave candidates support based on whose signs she put in her yard. She had the same litmus test for everybody. She’d call you to her house and she would drill you about how you were going to make a difference if she was going to support you. She was a dynamic lady,” Flaggs said.

Robert Walker, a former Warren County supervisor and Vicksburg Mayor, called Miller “a once in a lifetime person. An exceptionally warm, good lady who has helped generations of Vicksburgers, not just politically and in civil rights, but in negotiating the challenges of life.

“I found her to be a friend, a confidant; she was No. 1 across the board. I had the benefit to work closely with her to benefit from her wisdom and guidance, and there will never be another one close to what she was through the years.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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