Joe Rutherford 3/26/09 Joe Rutherford 3/26/09 for friday march 27 CENTER COLUMN
hed: Courageous editor’s memory honored by lawmakers
JACKSON – Forty-six years ago, a racist Holmes County state senator rose to denounce Lexington Advertiser editor Hazel Brannon Smith as a “traitor,” brandishing photos taken by agents of the old state Sovereignty Commission who stalked the courageous weekly newspaper editor because she spoke out for civil rights.
The photos showed Smith, who was white, delivering bundles of a little newspaper called “Free Press” that young civil rights workers based in Jackson had begun. When the young activists could not get their paper printed in Jackson, Smith agreed to print it at her Lexington plant. Then struggling to keep her own paper alive under an economic boycott pushed by the segregationist white Citizens Council, Smith needed the small print job revenue.
Of course, the sorry 1963 episode by the Holmes county senator was calculated as part of a drive by racial extremists to throttle Smith’s newspaper voice and put her out of business. She kept her paper going, though barely, until 1985 when the Advertiser succumbed in a sea of debt. Her husband, Walter Smith, had passed away and Hazel was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in poverty in 1994 while being cared for by a distant niece, her lone living relative.
Fortunately, racial attitudes in the Mississippi Legislature have changed for the better and redemption is erasing some dark chapters of the state’s history. Last week, a Mississippi House resolution honored Hazel Brannon Smith’s career and paramount contribution to advancement of human rights in Mississippi. The resolution, significantly, was sponsored by a black lawmaker, yes, from Holmes County.
“This is long overdue recognition of a courageous woman and editor from my county,” said Rep. Bryan Clark (D. Puckett) who with Rep. Willie Bailey (D. Greenville) pushed the measure to House adoption. Poetically, Clark is the son of former Holmes County state Rep. Robert Clark, who made history by becoming in 1968 the first African-American to be seated in the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction.
As Bryan Clark notes in the resolution, Smith helped his father in his 1967 campaign win election to the House. “I was too young to know Mrs. Smith personally, but my father speaks of her often,” Bryan said, adding “and so does Rep. Bailey who inspired me to offer the resolution honoring her,” he added.
His well-researched measure, which awaits Senate approval, does not gloss over Hazel’s earlier years when she accepted racial segregation as part of the natural order and backed candidates who opposed civil rights laws. It, however, does capture the cardinal event in 1955 which marked Hazel’s conversion – or radicalization – to advocate for racial justice and civil rights for black citizens.
When the Holmes County sheriff one Saturday night without cause shot a young black man in the back of the leg on a town street as he was “whooping” with friends outside a beer joint, Hazel reported the entire incident on the front page of the Advertiser and blistered him in her column for ill-treating black citizens. Instantly, whites who controlled the county’s economy and government, turned against Smith. Led by the powerful Citizens Council members, they stripped her paper of legal and commercial advertising and launched a new newspaper.
The sheriff won a $10,000 libel judgment against her in a lower state court, but the state Supreme Court later threw it out. Her legal defense costs further depleted her financial resources.
That experience transformed Smith into a voice for racial justice, and as Clark says in his resolution, she returned to her “core commitments to Christianity (and) law and order.” In 1964, the Pulitzer Committee awarded Smith the prize for editorial courage, citing her “steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition.”
When Hazel was chosen for induction into the Mississippi Press Association’s “Hall of Fame” in 1987, she was already ill and I accepted the honor for her. Similarly, in 1993 when she won the Fannie Lou Hamer Award, she was deeply into Alzheimer’s disease, and I accepted the award on her behalf.
A part-fiction movie on her heroic battle against racial bigotry was produced in the early 1990s by the ABC network. It fell short of telling the end story of Hazel’s tragic life, but captured some of the halcyon times in the 1940s when her flair and brunette beauty dazzled many a country editor at press conventions.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.