Mike Lesser


As remembered by Mimi Real
June 6, 2022

Another hero is gone.

I first worked with Mike in Louisiana on voter registration, with CORE, for over a year. He was a quiet pillar of strength and quickly became a leading member of our team. He was always ready and willing to take on risky assignments, without blowing his own horn.

He and I were among the first group of CORE workers sent to East and West Feliciana Parishes, two of the most segregated and oppressed counties in the state. Both had, at that time, majority Black populations; but in West Feliciana not a single Black was registered to vote, and in East Feliciana only a handful of Blacks had the franchise. Mike was one of the few members of our group, and one of the only white CORE workers, sent into West Feliciana Parish; the fear of violent retribution against voter registration workers was too high to risk sending others.

Ronnie Moore, COREs Field Secretary in Louisiana, came increasingly to rely on Mike, sending him to start CORE operations in Bogalusa, LA, and eventually sending him to northern Louisiana, which was even more violence-prone toward civil rights workers than was the Sixth Congressional District in the southern part of the state. Mikes life was threatened or in danger on many occasions, including one arrest for criminal anarchy, which carried the death penalty. Protecting him (sometimes with their rifles at the ready, especially on night drives) were the Deacons for Defense and Justice, with whom Mike worked closely while maintaining his commitment to nonviolence.

In the years after Louisiana, Mike and I again worked together — this time on an SDS project in Hoboken, NJ. Mike was always a source of quiet humor and great inspiration. He had a great appreciation for music — he introduced me to the genius of the Beatles. When the Hoboken project lost its steam, we, as a group, decamped to San Francisco, where Mike, another group member, and myself, among other accomplishments, assembled a harpsichord from a kit. (We also became part of the draft resistance movement in the Bay Area.)

I lost touch with Mike for a while after that, but when the organizers of a 50th reunion of Louisiana CORE workers, to take place in New Orleans, couldnt locate Mike to invite him, I dug into my records and finally found an email address for him. Mike, Diane (his significant other), and I traveled to New Orleans together and had a wonderful few days reuniting with former colleagues, and enjoying the best of New Orleans food and jazz. The trip was capped by an excursion — Mike, Ronnie Moore, and I — to our old stomping grounds in West Feliciana Parish, an eye-opening trip to see all the changes that 50 years had brought and to visit some of our old friends there.

When we returned to the Bay Area, I visited Mike as often as I could, bringing with me books about the civil rights movement in which he was mentioned. We shared some good memories and had some good laughs.

Mike, we veterans will miss you.

May your memory be a blessing.


As remembered by Fatima Cortez
May 3, 2023

My memories of Mike Lessor are filled with joy and humor. He was a striking presence teamed with a partner of equal dynamics in Ronnie Moore. Watching and learning from them in our initial training in Plaquemine was rigorous and overwhelming at times. They held no punches with what we were facing and the work we were doing on a battlefield. I remember Mike with his clipboard and pen in hand when we gathered n the morning for our lessons and planning for Freedom Summer.

I was an eighteen year old NYC spoiled, privileged young woman of multicultured heritage (Latin, African, American indigenous, Dutch) and I realized early that I had a lot to learn. I willingly gave myself over because I trusted Mike and Ronnie and felt a camaraderie with the gathered group.

Mike led most of the training sessions and encouraged us to get to know the people in the communities were we were assigned to and to listen and respect the customs. The nonviolent self protection sessions were intense and Mike was unwavering with exercises, follow through and the importance of commitment to nonviolence. I discovered that I had a temper that I had to control and no one but me knew that. I didn't want to be sent home.

When Mike moved to New York and went to work with NYC Welfare Department, we were able to stay in touch. I used to call him and upset the bureaucracy by leaving the message that his daughter had called.

This was a time when Mike, Ronnie and Sharon Burger Townsend, Al Culpepper, Judy Rollins, and I were all living and working in New York. We managed to keep in contact and be part of social change groups. I believe Mike returned to San Francisco after a while and we lost contact. When I moved to San Francisco to direct film festivals, I found out that he was chair of the Wine Studies Department at Berkley, I believe. In any case, it blew my mind that there was such a thing. I also laughed when his voicemail message included his dog's name.

I moved back to Los Angeles, he retired and we lost contact again. The next and last time I saw him was in 2014 in New Orleans. It nade me sad, but I will always remember his laugh and caring persona. Rest well my friend. You have earned it.

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