Julius Lester, author, civil rights activist, photographer, musician, and educator who taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for more than 30 years, died on January 18 in Palmer, Massachusetts. He was 78 years old and suffered from emphysema.
A native of St. Louis, Lester graduated from Fisk University in Nashville and then went to New York with the hopes of being a folk singer and recorded two albums. He was active in the civil rights movement and his photographs of that era were shown in an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.
Professor Lester was the author of more than 40 books, many of them for children. He published his memoir All Is Well (William Morrow, 1976) and later wrote Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (Henry Holt, 1988) about his conversion to Judaism. Lester’s great-grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany who settled in Arkansas and married a former slave.
Professor Lester taught both African American studies and Jewish studies at the University of Massachusetts from 1971 to 2003. After converting to Judaism in the early 1980s, he became surrounded in controversy by charging some Black leaders with anti-Semitism. As a result, he left the Afro-American studies department at the University of Massachusetts in 1988 and moved to the university’s department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies.
Upon Professor Lester’s death, the university issued a statement that read in part: “Julius Lester enriched our university community and the world as a teacher, scholar, and writer.”