Obituary: Julius Lester, Professor Emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies

Julius Lester
Julius Lester

Julius Lester, a professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern studies who was nationally renowned as author, civil rights activist, musician and photographer, died Jan. 18 at age 78.

Lester was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1939, the son of a minister. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and Nashville, Tennessee, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Fisk University in 1960.

He moved to New York City in 1961, where his interests and accomplishments grew. He was a radio and television host and folk singer and taught banjo and guitar. In 1964, he traveled to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer as part of the historic civil rights movement supporting black voter registration.

“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.”

Thirteen of the photographs he took while working with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee during the Freedom Sumer were included in the 1980 Smithsonian Institution exhibition “We’ll Never Turn Back: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Lester’s writing included children’s fiction and non-fiction, autobiography, poetry and history, including “The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois.” His first book, in 1965, was “The Twelve-String Guitar as Played by Ledbelly,” co-written with activist and folk legend Pete Seeger.

The great-grandson of a Jew, Lester told the story of his 1980s conversion to Judaism in “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.”

Lester began his academic career as lecturer as the New School for Social Research in New York. He joined UMass Amherst as a visiting lecturer in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American studies in 1971, became associate professor in 1975 and professor in 1977. From 1982-88, he held a joint appointment in Afro-American studies and Judaic studies.

Always outspoken, he called for the resignation of U.N. ambassador Andrew Young in the 1970s and publicly criticized civil rights icon Jess Jackson in the 1980s.

In 1988, Lester was at the center of a national controversy after he alleged in “Lovesong” that writer James Baldwin, also on the Afro-American faculty for a time, had made anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on campus four years earlier. Lester transferred to the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies, where he remained until retiring in 2003.

He won numerous awards on campus, including a Distinguished Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Medal, and in 1988 he was named state professor of the year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Also during his career at the university, he held leadership posts in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and taught as an adjunct professor of English and history.

He left his archives to the Jones Library in Amherst.

Lester lived in Belchertown with his wife, Milan Sabatini.

Funeral arrangements had not been announced.