Our friend Bobby Lee passed away yesterday. Bob was a community organizer and a member of the Chicago Black Panthers. His home has been the 5th Ward in Houston over the past few decades, and he is indeed known as “Da Mayor” of the 5th Ward.
Bobby Lee was one of those rare people who had the ability to form unlikely friendships and connect to the humanity of whoever he was engaged with, whether it was a transplanted, white Appalachian mom or a Chicago police commander, or myself…a girl who grew up in the suburbs, trying to find the audience for her upstart film archive.
I can’t remember if I met or only “knew of” Bob in the early ’80s through photographer Michael O’Sullivan. But I came to know Bob so much better in 2006 when I asked him to be a panelist at an early program CFA created called To Bear Witness: The Question of Violence. He shared the stage with Robert Lucas, who led civil rights protesters in the 1966 Cicero March, and Paul Sequeira, a gifted Chicago photojournalist whose work was prolific here in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. The discussion that night veered most often to that careful balance between anger and purpose and loss.
During this time, Bob would call me a lot, and we had long conversations about his past and the work he did in the 5th Ward. This work often constituted mowing older neighbors’ lawns, collecting clothes and toys for the kids in the ward, and building community centers. I was a worried mom then, worried about the dangers that my pre-teen kid might face, and we talked about that too. We talked about Mike Gray, Jim Dennett, and Bill Cottle of the Film Group. We discussed Howard Alk who directed The Murder of Fred Hampton and American Revolution II and his difficult and crazy shortened life. Bob’s losses were considerable over his lifetime. He lost brothers in the Panthers, his younger blood brother El Franco Lee and his nephew, James Byrd who was dragged behind a pickup truck until he died by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.
In 2008 I went down to Houston to tape Bob for a CFA retrospective on Howard Alk. Bob met me at the airport, parking his big black sedan (if I remember that correctly) right outside the baggage claim. He stepped out of the car with his arms open wide, one of them grasping a cane that seemed to extend into eternity. That began a three day visit I will never forget. I stayed with Bob and his wife Faiza at their house while I was there. We ate ribs, visited his work, and shot that interview about Alk. Each morning that I was there, Bob would get up at 4am to prepare coffee and breakfast for Faiza and me. That is when he also quietly worked on his newsletters (or artistic pronouncements of activities, movements and beliefs). Faiza would go to work, and we went to work preparing to tape his interview.
But the most startling and memorable time I had during that visit was having dinner with Faiza and Bob in their bedroom watching not-too-significant television. I was in my pajamas on the floor, Bob was in a chair, clearly set up for his support and comfort, and Faiza in bed, all of us eating some great food she had prepared and laughing at really stupid stuff. I remember for one sliver of a moment thinking this is both so surreal and so comfortable.
Bob had MS the entire time I knew him. He used a cane and then more often used a wheelchair as time moved on. He was the most positive and forceful person I have ever met.