Lee Faye Mack, a longtime activist in Winston-Salem’s black community, died on Wednesday after a life that included decades of involvement in what her pastor, the Rev. Carlton Eversley, called “a prophetic ministry.”
Eversley said Mack, 87, has been called “our Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks” for the efforts she made from the 1960s onward “to challenge institutions of injustice and provide human services for poor and oppressed people.”
“I moved to Winston-Salem in 1982 and immediately heard about and met mother Lee Faye Mack,” said Eversley, who is pastor at Dellabrook Presbyterian Church. “The story they kept telling me was that the sheriff had challenged her: Did she know her children were in the Black Panther Party? And her response was, ‘I am in the Black Panther Party.’ She was a major community leader for many, many years.”
The local Black Panthers were active from 1969 to 1977, and while their confrontational tactics were controversial, they are also remembered for providing free breakfasts, clothing and an ambulance service.
Because of her support for the children’s work the group did, she was described as “Mother of the Black Panther Party.”
In the 1970s, Mack’s name appeared in newspaper articles that chronicled some of her activism. In 1973, she was urging the city to speed up relocation efforts for people whose homes had been scheduled for demolition under an urban renewal program.
The year 1977 found her chairing a group called the Concerned Citizens, which picketed a child-care center that was being investigated for racial discrimination. In 1980, Mack headed a 300-strong group called Concerned Mothers of Forsyth County, which was calling attention to the plight of women who were not getting their child-support payments.
Along the way, Mack worked for community-service agencies such as Experiment in Self-Reliance, the Urban League and as a tenant organizer for the East Winston Community Development Corp.
But it was her activities at the Back to Life Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center on E. 21st Street, that embroiled Mack in an investigation that led to her indictment in 1991 and conviction on a charge of perjury in 1992.
A federal probe dubbed Operation Mushroom Cloud resulted in the conviction of former Winston-Salem Alderman Patrick Hairston and lobbyist Rodney J. Sumler on charges of racketeering and extortion. The pair were accused of conspiring to extort money from businessmen with zoning or contracts before the city’s governing board.
The indictment didn’t accuse Mack of profiting from the activities, but it did accuse her of lying about a list of contributions to the Back to Life Center before a grand jury in 1989. Mack told the grand jury that Sumler had nothing to do with the list, but testified at trial that Sumler had helped prepare it.
Mack served the minimum sentence for the conviction — five months in a work-release prison and five months of house arrest — after a judge said he was impressed by a large outpouring of community support for Mack at her sentencing.
Mack always said she never intended to mislead anyone. Her conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 1995, prompting her daughter Hazel to comment that her mother had “made time for something she didn’t do.”
Mack’s supporters were always incredulous of the charge.
“The general feeling was that she was more or less drawn into that situation (the indictment) to quiet her, to put a muzzle on her mouth,” said the Rev. John Mendez, whose church, Emmanuel Baptist Church on Shalimar Drive, will be the site of the funeral at noon on Friday. “It didn’t work. She maintained her spirit of activism and protest.”
Mack was born in Elliott, an unincorporated community in Lee County, S.C.
“She grew up sharecropping in South Carolina,” Eversley said. “Came here and did domestic work and so on and raised several children. Her family has provided more community service than any other family I can think of.”
At an event in 2000, Mack proudly talked about how she had a doctor, lawyer, school principal and computer expert among her adult children. In 1967, she said, she had been a welfare mother.
Mendez called Mack “an amazing woman.”
“I think her life was spent trying to make a difference in the lives of black folk, on the one hand, but also to create a better community, on the other hand,” he said. “I met her 36 years ago. She was doing what she has always done, being an activist in the community and trying to educate and raise consciousness among black folk. She was a genuine freedom fighter.”
As she got older and younger people came along, Mack took on a role as a supporter rather than the leader, Eversley and Mack said.
Miranda Jones, a younger-generation activist who has been involved in controversies over Winston-Salem’s Confederate statue and other issues, said Mack’s name was always spoken with reverence when she heard it mentioned.
“I was saddened by the loss,” Jones said. “I got to meet her once. If I can get any portion of her spirit and strength, that would be wonderful.”
Jones said Mack’s life is an example of why the schools need to teach more African American history, so children can learn about people such as Mack who made a difference right here.
“I have so much further to go to be half of what she was to my people,” Jones said. “I have always looked to women like that and, particularly, local black women. She was known as a black woman that was not to be toyed with.”