Author, activist Julius Lester dies at 78

  • “After the Snow Fell, Belchertown” by Julius Lester.


Published: 1/18/2018 11:55:00 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Julius Lester, a renowned author, musician, activist and photographer who taught for three decades at the University of Massachusetts, died Thursday, surrounded by family, at the age of 78.

Lester was a national figure who chose to make his home in the Pioneer Valley for decades, and who left an indelible mark on it.

“When I think of Julius Lester, I think of his fierce intelligence, his deep spirituality, his unwavering commitment to social justice, and most of all his open-hearted compassion,” said Lesléa Newman, an author and colleague of Lester’s, in an emailed comment.

The son of a minister, Lester was born in St. Louis on Jan. 27, 1939. He grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and later Nashville, Tenn., where in 1960 he received an English degree from the historically black Fisk University.

Lester was a true polymath. He wrote dozens of critically acclaimed books, for children — including a retelling of the Br’er Rabbit tales and an exploration of slavery, “To Be a Slave” — as well as nonfiction and novels for adults. He was also a musician, and his very first book was a guide to the 12-string guitar, co-written with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger.

In 1961, Lester moved to New York City, where he taught banjo and guitar, performed as a folk singer, hosted a talk radio show on WBAI and hosted a television show on WNET.

It was while he was a folk singer in New York City that Lester, in 1964, decided to travel to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer, when civil rights activists launched efforts in the state to register black voters who had been systematically disenfranchised.

“Going to Mississippi in ’64, you knew you could be arrested, you knew you could be killed, you knew you could be injured. And so it’s not something you did lightly, not something you did because it was going to be fun,” Lester told PBS in a 2014 interview. “But there was this feeling inside of me that it was just something I had to do.”

In addition to using his musical gifts at mass meetings and rallies, Lester also chronicled the civil rights movement as a photographer working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Those photographs were later part of a civil rights exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, and his larger body of work has also been featured in solo shows at galleries across the Pioneer Valley.

In 1971, Lester became a professor of Afro-American studies at UMass Amherst, where he remained until his retirement in 2003. During his time at UMass, he won the Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship and the Chancellor’s Medal. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Lester the state’s Professor of the Year in 1988.

“UMass Amherst is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Julius Lester, who enriched our university community and the world as a teacher, scholar and writer,” spokesman Ed Blaguszewski wrote in an email. “We cherish his many enduring contributions to our lives and extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family.”

Journey to Judaism

When he was a child, Lester learned that his great-grandfather Adolph Altschul was Jewish, and this knowledge was one of the factors in his conversion to Judaism in the early 1980s. In 1988, he became a professor of Judaic studies at UMass, and he served as a lay religious leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for around a decade.

Lester chronicled his journey to Judaism in his book “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.” His Hebrew name is Lev Sameach ben Avraham v’Sarai.

“Personally, Julius and his work were quite important in my life,” Rabbi Justin David, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton said in a statement. “At a formative time, I read his memoir, ‘Lovesong,’ in a single sitting late one Shabbat evening, captivated by his spiritual journey of discovery and joy.

“Though he treasured his privacy, Julius warmly welcomed me when I arrived in Northampton 16 years ago, and I was both delighted and truly humbled when this celebrity took me to lunch. I only wish I could have sought more opportunities to learn from him.”

One of Lester’s friends was Marcie Sclove, who first met him three decades ago when he was a customer at her former restaurant, Marcie’s Place, in Amherst.

“We would have these great talks,” said Sclove, who noted that they took place right at the counter.

Sclove described Lester as a man who was an incredible thinker and spiritual person who felt very close to God. She said she ran into him for a last time two weeks ago.

During his lifetime, Lester chose to leave his archives to the Jones Library in Amherst, which awarded him the Samuel Minot Jones Awards for Literary Achievement in 2015.

“When I came here, we had the Dickinson and Frost collections. I was very happy to have added a third major collection, that of author Julius Lester, who is one of our best writers,” said Dan Lombardo, the former curator of special collections at the Jones Library, upon his retirement in 1999.

In his retirement, Lester lived in Belchertown with his wife, Milan Sabatini.

“I’m a monk at heart, I’m a solitary at heart. I really, really am,” Lester said in a recent interview with Amherst Media. “Now I get to lead the life I want to have.”

Solitary at heart though he may have been, Lester continued to be active on Facebook, where his page has nearly 3,000 followers.

It was on Facebook that his daughter Lian Amaris, one of Lester’s five children, kept the world updated about his condition in his last days, and where she announced that he had died. No funeral or shiva information has been released yet.

A statement from the family was not received by deadline Thursday evening.

Facebook also provided a platform for Lester, a man of many words, to write a public statement to the world on Jan. 3 in what would be his final post.

In it, Lester reflects on his health, as well as his gratitude for the space that his Facebook page provided for him to continue to teach.

“Again, I am so grateful to all of you who shared so much wonderful energy with me, indeed who lavished wonderful energy on me,” were the last words he published, before signing off with a take care of yourselves and much love.

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