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In 1961 he moved to New York City where he married Joan Steinau. They had two children, Jody Simone (1965) and Malcolm Coltrane (1967). They divorced in 1970. In 1979 he married Alida Carolyn Fechner, who had a daughter, Elena Milad. Fechner and Lester had a son, David Julius. They divorced in 1991. He married Milan Sabatini in 1995. His daughter from this marriage is Lián Amaris.
Civil rights years
During college, Lester became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Among his major efforts in those years was participation in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. His experiences during "Freedom Summer" were documented in a 2014 documentary, "The Folk Singer," airing as part of the American Experience series on PBS. Lester also traveled to North Vietnam with SNCC to photograph and write about the damage caused by U.S. bombing missions there.
During his New York years, Lester hosted "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a radio show on WBAI-FM (1968-75); co-hosted (with Jonathan Black) Free Time, a television show on WNET-NY (Channel 13), for two years; and recorded two albums of traditional and original songs for Vanguard Records: Julius Lester (1966) and Departures (1967). A compilation of songs from both albums was released on a CD, Dressed Like Freedom, on Ace Records in 2007.
Lester's 1966 essay "The Angry Children of Malcolm X," is considered one of the definitive African-American statements of its era. As his reputation grew, Lester wrote his first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! (Dial, 1968), which he characterized as the "first book about the black power movement by someone inside the black power movement,".
Conversion to Judaism
In 1982 Lester converted to Judaism. He has said that his conversion journey began when he was seven and learned that his maternal grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Germany, who married a freed slave. He adopted the Hebrew name Yaakov Daniel ben Avraham v'Sarah.
From 1968 to 1970, alongside his activities as a radio host in New York, Lester taught Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research. In 1971 he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a visiting lecturer in the Afro-American Studies department; he became an associate professor in the department in 1975 and a full professor in 1977.
Lester came into conflict with his colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department upon the publication, in 1988, of his book Lovesong, which chronicles his conversion to Judaism; in the book he refers to a lecture at the university by the renowned author James Baldwin several years earlier, and characterizes certain remarks that Baldwin made as anti-Semitic. In March 1988, in a unanimous step, the Afro-American Studies faculty wrote a letter to the university administration recommending that Lester be reassigned to a different department. Following negotiations that involved the chancellor of the university, the dean of the faculty, and Lester himself, Lester transferred to the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department (where he had held a joint appointment since 1982), and remained there for the rest of his university career, until his retirement at the end of 2003.
During his 32 years at the university, Lester taught courses in five departments: Comparative Literature ("Black and White Southern Fiction"), English ("Religion in Western Literature"), Afro-American Studies ("The Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois"), ("Writings of James Baldwin"), ("Literature of the Harlem Renaissance"), ("Blacks and Jews: A Comparative Study"), and Judaic Studies ("Biblical Tales and Legends") and ("The Writings of Elie Wiesel"), History ("Social Change and the 1960s"), one of the university's largest and most popular courses.
Lester was awarded all three of the university's most prestigious faculty awards: the Distinguished Teacher's Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor's Medal, the university's highest honor. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year 1986.
SNCC Digital Gateway: Julius Lester, Documentary website telling the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and grassroots organizing, created by the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University.