By Bill Minor
“I ain’t no lady … I’m a newspaper woman.”
Hazel Brannon Smith
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Fannie Lou Hamer
“If I die, I die for something.”
JACKSON – All are quotes from Joan Sadoff’s “Pieces From the Past-Voices of Heroic Women in Civil Rights,” which the Philadelphia, Penn., clinical social worker has published recounting the roles eleven brave women played in Mississippi’s civil rights struggle.
Of them, four – Hazel Brannon Smith, Betty Pearson, Florence Mars and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland – are whites who took courageous stands during the 1950s or 1960s that could ruin them financially or bring family estrangement.
The seven African-American women – Unita Blackwell, Constance Slaughter Harvey, Annie Devine, June Johnson, Winson Hudson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Mae Bertha Carter, not only endured threats but on occasions bodily injury for seeking black voting rights.
Several such as Hamer and Devine left a lasting political impact that broke down racial barriers in the Democratic Party. Others such as Harvey, Hudson and Carter were identified with historic educational breakthroughs.
Hamer (who died in 1977) became a civil rights legend for her “sick and tired” words in seeking recognition of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The MFDP challenge, though unsuccessful, marked the turning point that brought blacks into the decision-making process of the national party.
Harvey, who in 1970 became Ole Miss’s first black female law graduate, recounts that a fellow student, later a Rankin County district attorney, called her by the “N” word when she enrolled in 1967. She also tells of being racially insulted by a judge before whom she defended Pearl High students arrested for protesting the lack of a Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday observance.
When dozens of Northern whites poured into Mississippi for the 1964 “Freedom Summer,” Blackwell, then 31, left the cotton fields near tiny Mayersville, and became involved. First, to register as a voter, something she never tried before. The tall black woman stood out when several blacks appeared at the Issaquena County courthouse. Though armed white men ringed the courthouse, Unita and her companions stood firm. Eventually she was registered, and when Mayersville was incorporated in 1976, she was elected its first mayor. At age 50 she was awarded an advanced degree from Amherst in regional planning and used it to establish several federally subsidized low-cost housing communities.
Joan Trumpauer came down from her native Virginia to enroll at Tougaloo College in 1960. Remarkably she was arrested as a Freedom Rider and sent to Parchman Penitentiary in 1961, and then took part in the historic 1963 Woolworth lunch counter sit-in with other Tougaloo students.
In later years (now married, adding Mulholland to her name) she returned to Virginia to teach school in Arlington. Often she puts flowers at the grave of Medgar Evers, who is buried in Arlington Military cemetery “to reflect on what it took for America to change.”
Though called a “traitor to your heritage” by her Delta plantation father, Betty Pearson accepted appointment to the state advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, then joined the biracial state delegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention that unseated the state’s “regular” delegation. Pearson, from the small town of Glendora and her close friend from college Florence Mars, of Philadelphia, became racial justice advocates after attending the Emmett Till murder trial in nearby Sumner. Two white men were quickly acquitted of murdering the 14-year-old black Chicago youth. Later, they admitted committing the crime in a Look Magazine article.
It was the now-deceased Mars, member of a distinguished Neshoba County family, who tipped me that Klansmen had burned rural Mount Zion Church and beaten the church’s elders, the incident that brought the three doomed civil rights workers into the county.
Lexington weekly editor Hazel Smith’s courageous story is told through my eulogy at her funeral in her native Gadsden, Ala., in 1994. Smith’s Lexington Advertiser had to close its doors in the 1980s after the powerful Holmes County Citizens Council for years hounded her, beginning after she spoke out against the local sheriff who shot a black man in the back without cause. That 1955 episode began her tough editorial crusade against racism and bigotry that turned the business and professional community against her. In 1964, the Pulitzer Committee awarded her its editorial prize for her courageous stand.
I had concluded: “If ever the martyrs to a free press are assembled in heaven, Hazel Brannon Smith will be in the front rank.”
Sadoff, moved by events she had seen on television, 20 years ago decided to give voice to Mississippi’s civil rights heroes. She organized a “Philadelphia to Philadelphia” odyssey that brought together citizens from the like-named cities in Pennsylvania and Mississippi to mark the state’s racial progress. “These are stories of people who believed they could make a difference, and change the status quo,” Sadoff writes. She chose to dedicate her book to extraordinary women of the civil rights era because most stories of those days were about men.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.