By Cindy George
Bob Lee, a lifelong social worker and older brother of the late Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee, died Tuesday. He was 74.
His various titles included community organizer, writer, storyteller and folk artist. He also was known to some as the “Mayor of Fifth Ward,” an honorary title bestowed on him by another local resident.
The Kashmere Gardens resident worked for years to help his politician brother, who served on the commissioners court for more than three decades before his death last year, to create northeast Harris County programs such as a Street Olympics and to stay deeply connected to the community.
“He was an outstanding human being. He looked at people, at their strengths. He always tried to help,” his brother, William Lee, said Wednesday. “He believed in the community. He believed in family.”
Robert E. Lee III was born Dec. 16, 1942, to Robert and Selma Lee. Raised in the Fifth Ward, he was a contemporary of other political and activist giants who attended Phillis Wheatley High School, including the late Houston Congressman Mickey Leland and People’s Party II leader Carl Hampton.
Lee’s grass-roots affinity was ignited in San Francisco, where he worked with physically challenged children as part of VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America – an anti-poverty domestic Peace Corps program. He was promoted to a branch on the South Side of Chicago where he interacted with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang (sic), and navigated the city’s underworld (sic).
‘A revolution can begin’
Lee was prominently featured in the 1969 documentary, “American Revolution 2,” which focused on organizing following unrest associated with the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
In one scene with other Panthers, he attempted to unify his efforts with poor white youths known as the Young Patriots and used the language of the times.
“We come here with our hearts open,” he told the group. “Once you realize that you are paying taxes – taxes – for the cops to whoop your ass. … You’re paying them to come in to beat your children. You’re paying them to run you off the corners and you’re paying them to kill you and deal from there. The same thing is happening on the south side and the west side. And when you can realize that concept of poverty – the concept of poverty – a revolution can begin.”
‘He gave his last’
He eventually organized a multiracial coalition in Chicago that worked on economic justice and anti-police brutality initiatives.
“I think we have lost one of our greatest organizers and freedom fighters,” she said Wednesday. “My husband was a white man and Bobby was a black man. They had not a lot in common, but they grew to love each other and were brothers in arms.”
Robbie Lee befriended Bob Lee decades ago when he walked into her business, the former Black Heritage Gallery on Almeda.
“Bob had a knack for just connecting with people. Whatever the need was, people knocked on his door. He gave his last. If they needed a job, he helped them find a job. He would go lacking to help others,” she said. “He never wanted any recognition during life for what he did. He helped so many people behind the scenes with their campaigns. He was truly an activist and a warrior and will be sorely missed.”
A taste for tea cakes
Current Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis issued a statement mourning the loss of his longtime friend.
“Even after retirement, he maintained a strong presence by helping people in the community the rest of his life. He collected clothes for people so they could go on job interviews. He also was concerned about children and people with debilitating diseases such as AIDS and cancer. … We all mourn the loss of this kind, good-hearted man.”
Bob Lee battled multiple sclerosis for at least two decades, but the illness and a wheelchair merely slowed him down.
“He never let obstacles stop him. That was not in his nature,” William Lee said. “He would still collect clothes. He would still go out and organize and help people.”
His insatiable love for tea cakes was legendary and intact until the end. “His wife dipped tea cakes into coffee so that he could enjoy them in his final days,” Robbie Lee said.
A convert to Islam, Bob Lee also was known as Robert Alwalee. He leaves a host of relatives, friends and admirers including his spouse, Faiza, two brothers and a son.
A private service and burial will be held on Thursday.