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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bethlehem Civil Rights Activist Esther Lee Honored

Flanked by Elks' civil liberties directors Carmela Boykins and Marcel Howard,
Esther Lee accepts its first ever community service award.
Bombastic. Humorous. Bold. Empathetic. Domineering. Inclusive. These are just a few of the adjectives describing Lehigh Valley civil rights pioneer Esther Lee, whose distinctive church lady hats and booming yet eloquent voice make her instantly recognizable. After spending a lifetime fighting for social justice in the Lehigh Valley, Lee was honored by the IBPOEW, or Black Elks, at their state annual convention at Bethlehem's Best Western Hotel on June 6. Over 200 members were on hand, including President Edward Dawkins and the state directors of civil liberties, Marcel Howard and Carmela Boykins, to present Lee with their first ever community service award.

"You know, I'm 82 years old," said Lee with a wry smile. "But I can still walk. I can think. I can see you out there," she joked as Boykins called her "the eyes and the ears of the Lehigh Valley."

About 200 members of the Black Elks honor Lee
She was born and raised in South Bethlehem, one of five children. Her commitment to her Baptist faith is apparent from more than the hat. A member of St. Paul Baptist Church, she is a Sunday school teacher, senior choir member, missionary member, church financial secretary and church treasurer. She also belongs to several statewide Baptist organizations.

"Church, church and more church," said Boykins in introducing Lee.

A graduate of Liberty High School, Lee never attended a day of college. Yet she calls education "the key to my life." That, and her interest in children is what sparked her interest in civil rights and community involvement.

"Our children are very important, and they should come first," she said. As the mother of two children attending Madison Elementary School, she peppered teachers and the principal with questions.She decided to join the PTA even though she was the only black face in a white room. "The white mothers decided I should be their President," she said. Those same white parents then encouraged her to run for school board, and in 1971, she became the first African American woman to be elected to a school board in the Lehigh Valley. She would serve for six years.

As a school director, she asked questions, and pushed for changes to improve Bethlehem's school system. But she noted that change is painfully slow. "It took us until 2016 to hire a black secretary in the school district of Bethlehem," she lamented. "that will let you know just how slow we are in getting things done."

She stressed the importance of parental involvement.

"We need parents to raise their children," she said. "Bring them to school. Preachers tell you to bring them to church, but we don't have Sunday Schools any more. That's where you can help children to read." She challenged parents and grandparents "to get up off your seats" and "insure that our children can read. Parents, it's on us."

Lee entered the workforce in the early 1950's, a time which many Lehigh Valley residents view with nostalgia. It was different for Lee. "Bethlehem wasn't hiring us as a people," she observed, but said she was fortunate that a Jewish family took pit on her and out her to work in their dry cleaning business.

Things changed when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, and businesses with federal contracts were forced to hire minorities. She hated leaving the dry cleaner, but was trained as a secretary, and finally got work with several companies during a long secretarial career that ended when she retired as an administrative assistant for the Bethlehem Council of Churches.

As her interest in civil rights deepened, Lee became involved in the NAACP, and is currently the president of the Bethlehem branch. She spoke of the marches that the NAACP and Elks made together on Martin Luther King Day, trying to persuade Bethlehem officials to close city hall on that national holiday. Mayor Ken Smith eventually agreed. She also recounted protests at Lehigh University, which also refused to recognize the holiday.

"I read that Lehigh wants to become more involved in the Bethlehem community," she observed. "The way to become more involved is to acknowledge that we are part of society and not just second class citizens."

Most recently, Lee has been hosting interesting and well-attended forums on topics ranging from education to police violence, and Police Chief Mark DiLuzio and Mayor Bob Donchez have both participated.

"I'll keep working, and I'll get ugly when I need to, as you all know," she said as people chuckled. "May God bless your children and grandchildren so that they can stand up and bear the pressure that this world brings to them."
From L to R: President Edward Dawkins, Esther Lee, Carmela Boykins and Marcel Howard

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe that it was Mayor Ken Smith.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Fixed. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Esther's a hateful racist who's made race relations and the plight of African Americans worse. You should be ashamed of this post. But you and she have no shame.

Anonymous said...

The only thing white in the room was the chicken breasts.

Anonymous said...

We need parents to raise their children," she said. "Bring them to school. Preachers tell you to bring them to church, but we don't have Sunday Schools any more. That's where you can help children to read." She challenged parents and grandparents "to get up off your seats" and "insure that our children can read. Parents, it's on us."
Mrs. Lee hit the nail on the head. If all parents did this, school districts would have close to 100 % graduation rates

Anonymous said...

It's funny to me that when meetings and organizations have forums and there are 1 or 2, if any, people of color attending, then it's the norm and acceptable, but when Black folks come together to celebrate a local icon who has stood up for their culture's best interests, it becomes a racist situation. Miss Lee didn't make racial situations bad, they were already abominable. The fact is when her and others pointed it out and told people to stand up and be counted, THAT'S when things got uncomfortable and people began to say we were hateful and race relations were going down hill. Don't blame Esther Lee or President Obama. The issue was already there, people have just started working against the horribleness of it and many are afraid...

Alfonso Todd

THE EPICENTER
TEAM DIVERSITY

Anonymous said...

I love how in the 21st Century there is no outrage for the NAACP still calling themselves the NAACP. You'd get sued, fired or suspended for anybody calling anybody else a "colored" person in the workplace today.



Bernie O'Hare said...

Do not leave gaps at the end of your comments. I will delete them. The NAACP was formed in 1909, when that was the polite term for people of color. There is no need to change its name to respond to your false sense of outrage.

Anonymous said...

They hate you ohair you're white ass suck

Anonymous said...

How about The United Negro College Fund?

Anonymous said...

Don't call him a chicken breast.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Formed in 1944, when Negro was a polite way of referring to people of color. Please stop the nonsense. You are looking for reasons to justify your hate and apparently didn't even read what Lee had to say.

Anonymous said...

Black people are fine. You are an old fool.

Anonymous said...

Why did you not allow the fact that Ester Lee condemned Ron Angles racist radio comments and wanted his resignation from county council?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I would have allowed that comment. Ron made a mistake, apologized and has always admired Esher

Anonymous said...

When a black gang beats up on a white person the blacks blame it one their upbringing saying it couldn't be helped. But when a white guy beats up a black guy then it is "a ugly racial incident".

Anonymous said...

what a lady and the area was very lucky to have her ! too bad the naacp is not what it used to be decades ago. it is a complete joke today. the naacp forgot what its real mission was decades ago.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 11:16p

Spoken like a true white man

Anonymous said...

@9:00, Nice. Very funny!

Unknown said...

I've dealt with the NAACP AND Mrs. Esther Lee. They do an amazing job.