Avie Lester: Still Fighting
It’s a common sentiment that the last few years have been a return to the 1960’s, a reference to the preponderance of white-supremacist groups, frequent high-profile instances of police brutality, a massive protest movement, violence against protestors, rioting, voter suppression and the open courting of racist voters by politicians.
For Mr. Avie Lester it is no exaggeration to say that America has regressed. From his expert perspective, the nation has been pulled back into the depths of overt racism after many decades of painstakingly pulling it closer to the shores of fairness and justice.
Growing up in Segregation
Mr. Lester was born and raised on his family’s farm in Person County. During his childhood in the 1940’s and 50’s, he saw first-hand the extreme inequalities that dominated the South prior to the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, a time known as Jim Crow.
He can still recall having to drive up to a restaurant and beep the horn to make an order because African Americans could not even enter the building. He tells the story of how, when he was a teen, he and some friends pulled up to a restaurant in downtown Roxboro and were met by a young white waitress who was so flustered by a car full of black teen boys that she exclaimed, “I don’t serve white folks!” As they looked around to see what whites she was refusing service to, she corrected herself. “Oh, Oh, I meant I don’t serve black folks!”
Mr. Lester laughs at that incident today. He has the right to, with decades of perspective on white racist nonsense. But white girls acting fearful of black boys has been no laughing matter at any point in U.S. history.
Mr. Lester credits his survival of that time with the fact that he was born into a strong Christian family that taught him, his siblings, and cousins to stay out of trouble. He says they were in Sunday School every Sunday because his grandfather was a deacon at Elijah Grove Baptist Church on Highway 49 in Person County. And he credits his church family with helping him throughout his life.
Like all African Americans his age from Person County, Mr. Lester’s formal education consisted of small school buildings in disrepair and badly used text books, with covers and pages missing. Like many his age, his mode of transportation were his own two feet, with buses full of jeering white kids passing him by everyday. While attending Person County High School, the all-black high school located where Southern Middle School is today, Mr. Lester became a bus driver (students drove school buses back then) and he says he would make a consorted effort to pick up his classmates who were walking.
He graduated from the segregated high school in 1958, four years after the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools nationwide “with all deliberate speed.” Person County did not offer integrated education until 1967 (Mr. Lester was good and grown by then, and he had a hand in bringing it to pass, as you will soon see).
Despite the limited educational and economic opportunities for Black people during that time, Mr. Lester’s parents and aunts and uncles were determined to give their children the best possible opportunities. So several of his siblings and cousins were sent off to college. The overarching choice for the Lester family was North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college in Greensboro, N.C.
Today, A&T is the largest HBCU in America and consistently ranks high among the nation's prestigious predominately black institutions. Along with being the home to now several generations of Lester family members, it has also produced scores of civil rights leaders, politicians, pastors, intellectuals, and entertainers.
On February 1,1960, A&T became the training ground for the sit-in movement, a form of protest that spread worldwide from a lunch counter in Greensboro and was the catalyst for the desegregation of restaurants and public facilities in the U.S. Mr. Lester had a front row seat for that historic event.
Serving Person County
Aside from his time at A&T, Mr. Lester is a lifelong resident of Person County, living in the same house into which he carried his bride, the late Shirley C. Lester, over the threshold on their wedding night. He returned to Person County after college with the intent of working as an educator in the newly formed community college system and at what is today PCC.
But his career goals were altered after he was approached at random by a stranger who claimed to be looking for a “good man.” The stranger was a representative from the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company who had been sent out to recruit talent. He convinced Mr. Lester that day to interview for what would become a 49-year-long career with North Carolina Mutual, with Mr. Lester gracing nearly every level and having an impact on nearly every aspect of the company.
During that time, employees of North Carolina Mutual were greatly respected members of the African American community; one because it was a highly visible job, and two, because they were performing a much-needed service for the predominately poor community.
But Mr. Lester did not settle on just serving his community through his employer. He returned home with a job, and more importantly, a mission to get active in the local civil rights movement.
Having served as president for several organizations, including being the head of the local NAACP for many years now, Mr. Lester has witnessed the ebbs and flows of social activism and civic awareness in the black community. He attributes the waves of low interest in the sociopolitical needs of the community to people getting good jobs and forming good connections, and thus feeling like they have arrived and don’t need to be concerned about the well-being of others. He also acknowledges the fact that in the past, the issues and inequalities were noticeably clear—one could see the whites only restrooms and water fountains—but in recent decades the inequalities were less overt.
That is until 2020 when everything is out in the open again. But the question still is, does everyone within the community truly understand the fight at hand?
Mr. Lester has also served his community from the spiritual perspective. He is still a member of his childhood church today, and by his account, he has served in every role outside of preaching. He acknowledges though, and laments, that the role of the Black Church as the headquarters of social and political thought and action has changed over the years.
While some things have changed over the years, what hasn’t changed is Mr. Lester’s commitment to fairness and justice, as was evident this summer when he and the NAACP formed a Truth Commission to review the investigations surrounding the death of Mr. David Brooks, Jr. who was shot by a local police officer on July 24th, 2020 while walking down Old Durham Rd. in Roxboro. The shooting eerily occurred almost exactly 100 years after Person County’s lone verified mob lynching of a black man on the same street.
David Brooks, Jr.
Mr. Brooks was walking down the street with, reportedly, a shotgun by his side and, by all accounts, a shopping bag full of goods he had recently purchased from the nearby Dollar General in his hands. Officers approached Mr. Brooks in their vehicles after receiving a call of a “black guy” with a shotgun “hanging around him.”
Dash cam footage from the vehicle of the shooter, reportedly Sgt. Alfred Cox, shows the shooter stopping his vehicle and exiting while yelling to Mr. Brooks, “Hey bruh, drop the gun.”
The video then appears to show Mr. Brooks lifting something with his hands. In the videos released to news outlets, it is difficult to see definitively if Mr. Brooks was lifting his bag, lifting the gun, or both, and even more difficult to ascertain whether he was pointing his gun at the officers, trying to remove it from around him, or neither.
But within five seconds of the initial command, and a split second after two more nearly simultaneous, frantic calls to drop the gun, the shooter fired and hit Mr. Brooks in the chest, causing him to fall straight back. Officers then approached, telling Mr. Brooks not to move as he appears in the video to be trembling on the ground. The officers then appear to remove the gun from around Mr. Brooks, placing it a few feet away. As other law enforcement vehicles approached the scene, an officer can be heard asking Mr. Brooks, “You Good?”
He then told Mr. brooks to, again, “Stay still.”
The shooting ignited waves of protests throughout the summer by local citizens and organizations, and less than civil behavior online between Person County community members, mostly surrounding the transparency and efficacy of the SBI's investigation, the background of the shooter, and the trustworthiness of Police Chief David Hess.
Mr. Brooks’ family members, along with others in the community, questioned the ability of the victim to follow the officer’s orders within the timeframe allotted to him before being shot. They also questioned the lack of de-escalation, considering that Mr. Brooks and Officer Cox had reportedly had a similar run-in in May. On that prior occasion, Mr. Brooks was accused of pointing a gun at someone, according to reports, but was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.
Mr. Lester commented to news media at the time that he thought the officer “could have backed off, talked to him, and all of this would not have happened."
In September, District Attorney Mike Waters declined to press chargers against the officer, saying the officer reasonably feared for his life and was justified in the shooting and that the dash cam reflected that, while also acknowledging that people may feel uncomfortable with the brevity of the encounter prior to the shot being fired.
Before releasing his decision to the public, the D.A. met with the family of Mr. Brooks. Mr. Lester was present for that meeting as well. Coming out of the meeting after the decision was announced, Mr. Lester told news cameras he was disappointed but not surprised.
Police Chief Hess said, following the D.A.'s announcement of no charges, that there would be an internal investigation into the officer's actions and asked for the public’s patience, saying, “We are committed to working with the NAACP and community leaders as we begin our internal administrative investigation.”
Mr. Lester says, pointedly, that he expects the police chief’s investigation to include more than the five seconds of film that the D.A. reviewed.
Mr. Lester’s motto is “A lifetime of service.” It explains why he is still willing to fight for fairness and justice—fighting fights he thought were already won, and fighting fights that perhaps he hoped would never have to be fought in Person County. But he keeps going, because he is bound to the perspective that things inevitably change for the better, an increasingly radical thought considering how society’s sheets have been pulled away to reveal the same old stains.
But Mr. Lester is committed to his beliefs, and to his community. So he’s still serving. And still fighting.