(b. 1939), activist, essayist, journalist, radio broadcaster, folklorist, writer, historian, poet, and professor.
Julius Lester was born on 27 January 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Woodie Daniel Lester and Julia B. Smith Lester. He received his BA from Fisk University in 1960, with a semester at San Diego State College, and an MA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1971, where he is currently a professor. He is married to his second wife and has four children. Lester has won the Newbery Honor Award (1969) and the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year Award (1986), and was a finalist for the National Book Award (1972) and the National Jewish Book Award (1988). Lester converted to Judaism in 1982.
Julius Lester's literary career has spanned a broad variety of political events and literary genres. Lester began his career as an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), traveling to Mississippi, Cuba (with Stokely Carmichael), North Vietnam, and Korea. In 1963 Lester coauthored We Shall Overcome! Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement with Guy Carawan, Candie Carawan, Ethel Raim, and Joseph Byrd. His first solo work, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama, was published in 1968 and followed in the same year by To Be a Slave. In 1969 Lester's collection of essays and articles about revolutionary movements in the United States, entitled Revolutionary Notes, was published and, in the same year, Black Folktales and Search for a New Land. In 1970 Lester divorced his first wife and left activism. He continued his prolific output with The Seventh Son: The Thought & Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois (1971), The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History and Two Love Stories (1972), and a book of poetry, Who I Am (1974), followed in 1976 by his first autobiography, All Is Well. In 1982 he began another series of books with This Strange New Feeling and continuing with Do Lord Remember Me (1984), The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), More Tales of Uncle Remus (1988), Lovesong, his second autobiography (1988), How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? (1989), Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990), and Further Tales of Uncle Remus (1990). Four books followed in 1994: The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, And All Our Wounds Forgiven, John Henry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Lester's work is characterized by his interest in education and change. His participation in academia and literature is marked by a concern both with African American culture and the need to break down the institutionalization of education and information that led him to activism in the 1960s and early 1970s. From the beginning of his career, however, Lester's work has been controversial. In the 1970s, he refused to endorse the Black Panther Party or Stokely Carmichael, consistently writing articles that editorial boards were reluctant to publish. Lester's most recent work is still controversial. His essays, courses, and speeches celebrating Judaism and Jews have raised angry responses from some African Americans, who accuse Lester of being a self-hating African American. Lester's most recent collection of essays, Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990), continues to explore the intersections of race, religion, and education, addressing issues of personal identity and group identity, the role of spirituality in life, and the nature of formal and informal education and reeducation.