On a hot June night in 1963, Alfred Brown lay on the sidewalk in front of the honky-tonks on Yazoo Street in the small Mississippi farm town of Lexington, bleeding his life away. At a time when headlines and telecasts blazed with stories of confrontations between Southern blacks and police, his death went unremarked, except by the tiny weeklies responsible for keeping the residents of rural Holmes County abreast of the news.
“Alfred Brown, negro, was killed in an altercation with Lexington police on Yazoo Street Saturday night,” reported the Holmes County Herald in a terse three-paragraph story. “Patrolman W.R. McNeer shot Brown in the chest as he advanced on him with a knife, Police Chief George Musselwhite said.”
Lexington’s leading newspaper told the story quite differently. “Alfred Brown, a Negro Naval veteran of World War II and father of five children, was shot to death in Lexington Saturday night,” the Lexington Advertiser’s story began.
The Advertiser’s long and circumstantial account made it clear that the dead man, a mental patient who still wore the bracelet of the hospital from which he had just been released, was a victim of racist police. They pursued him down the street, accusing him of being drunk, shot him when he pulled out his pocket knife, then stood over him, guns drawn, to prevent his relatives and others who had gathered at the scene from going to his aid.
That the two stories appeared to arrive from different universes was no surprise. By 1963, the Advertiser’s editor and publisher Hazel Brannon Smith had become notorious, driving the racist powers that be of the region to flights of apoplexy. As state Rep. Wilburn Hooker of Holmes County told the director of the State Sovereignty Commission, the state agency established to spy on civil rights organizations, she was “this female crusading scalawag domiciled in our midst.”
Holmes County, population 27,000, was desperately poor–but competing newspapers served it because Hazel Brannon Smith was a member of a small band of Southern journalists who supported the black movement for civil rights. The Rival Holmes County Herald was founded by the segregationist White Citizens’ Council in 1960 to drive her out of business. The Citizens’ Council used the Herald to back up an advertising boycott of Mrs. Smith’s two Holmes County weeklies, the Advertiser and the Durant News, which served the smaller city 12 miles east of Lexington.
Hazel Brannon Smith endured more than 20 years of violence, ostracism and economic strangulation in the name, she said, “of telling the people the truth and defending their freedom.” In return for her suffering, she won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1964, the first woman ever to be so honored.
The usual burst of newspaper and magazine articles and speaking engagements followed the announcement of her Pulitzer Prize, and told the nation the story of the boycott of her newspapers, her husband’s firing from his job as an administrator at the county hospital, the competition of the Citizens’ Council paper, the Klan death threats and cross-burnings. Her enemies retaliated by bombing the Northside Reporter, her little weekly in Jackson that September. Three years later, just before the Advertiser was to go to press, arsonists set fire to the printing plant, causing major damage. The paper came out on time in a miniature edition printed on a small press sufficiently undamaged to be drafted into service.
“When I am no longer free to print the truth unafraid, then you are no longer free to speak the truth without fear,” the editor responded in her column. Ultimately, however, the campaign succeeded in driving Hazel Brannon Smith out of business–but not before her name became a symbol not just of courage, but of honor. Her nationwide fame has faded, her name is unfamiliar to a new generation of journalists, but her African American readers in Holmes County remember her vividly to this day.
Hazel Brannon Smith did not set out to oppose Jim Crow. Three days after the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that “segregated schools are not equal and cannot be made equal,” Mrs. Smith attacked the decision in her column, “Through Hazel Eyes,” a fixture on the front page of her eight-page newspapers. “We know that it is to the best interest of both races that segregation be maintained in theory and in fact–and that where it isn’t maintained trouble results,” she wrote. A month later, she added a hackneyed postscript: “Try as we may we cannot legislate human desires, appetites or emotions, prejudices and fears,” and added, “We believe that intermarriage of the races is a sin–and that God did not intend for us to mix in marriage. If he had he would not have created separate races–only one.”
Then on the Fourth of July weekend, 1954, Sheriff Richard Byrd shot Henry Randall and Mrs. Smith’s life began to change.
The sheriff, said the Advertiser, came upon a group of black men, started an argument with one, then pulled his gun and told him to “get goin’.” As the 27-year-old ran, the sheriff opened fire, wounding him in the leg. “Laws were made to protect the weak in our society from the strong,” Mrs. Smith wrote in a signed, front-page editorial that called for the sheriff’s resignation. “The vast majority of Holmes County people are not red necks who look with favor on the abuse of people because their skins are black.” When Sheriff Byrd sued, she retorted, “Our defense against this alleged libel is the TRUTH,” a defense an appellate court ratified, reversing a jury verdict that had found her guilty.
The memory of Mrs. Smith’s refusal to look the other way when whites mistreated blacks remains strong in the Holmes County black community. James T. Wiley, now the mayor of Durant, who worked part-time in Mrs. Smith’s print shop as a teenager, and whose late brother Will Edward Wiley was the mainstay of the printing operation, was among those who retold the story of the 1954 shooting in an interview in February 2000. “That didn’t make her too popular,” he said. “From that time on, things went downhill with her.” From that time forward, as well, you will search in vain for a defense of segregation in the pages of the Advertiser.
Mrs. Smith’s evolution from segregationist to active ally of the civil movement was gradual, however, until she agreed to print the Mississippi Free Press, a paper founded by activists to break the news blackout that had made it difficult to get word of their campaigns to black Mississippians. The newspaper greatly alarmed the Sovereignty Commission. On December 15, 1961, the commission’s director and an investigator staked out the office of the Free Press in Jackson and saw Mrs. Smith and her husband speaking to Medgar Evers and members of the newspaper’s staff. The investigators telephoned Rep. Hooker, touching off his “scalawag” outburst. Then they published their findings in an affidavit that the Citizens’ Council mailed to legislators and the news media. State Sen. T. M. Williams, also of Holmes County, waved the affidavit on the senate floor as he denounced Mr. Smith.
The editor struck back. Comparing the Citizens’ Council to the Gestapo–an image that was to recur over the years–she said her papers had become the “chief target of a vicious statewide smear campaign.” She sought to shift the terms of the debate from civil rights to the First Amendment–and the use of taxpayer money to subvert it–by denying that the spies had observed a meeting. She was simply delivering a printing job, she insisted. Noting that both the Holmes County legislators were among the organizers of the rival Holmes County Herald, she traced their hostility to her refusal to suppress the story of Henry Randall’s shooting. Somewhat disingenuously, for she must have known how controversial agreeing to print a civil rights newspaper would be, she claimed, “This battle is not an integration-segregation controversy at all.”
Mrs. Smith could split hairs in this fashion because the revolt against Jim Crow had bypassed Holmes County. Although the Sovereignty Commission spies were recording he license numbers of those attending NAACP meetings in the county as early as 1958, their few reports from the field were reassuring to segregationists. Sent to check on “subversive activities,” in March 1961 a commission investigator reported that “everyone whom I talked to considered Hazel Smith, a white female, a trouble maker and integrationist,” but added that civil rights activity was “at a low ebb.”
That changed in the spring of 1963, when a group of black farmers journeyed to Greenwood to ask SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the only civil rights organization brave, or foolhardy, enough to organize voter registration campaigns in Mississippi’s backwoods to help them found the Holmes County Movement. Greenwood native John Ball immediately took up residence in the little black hamlet of Mileston to teach the farmers how to navigate the tortuous process of registering to vote. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, there were 4,773 white adults in Holmes County, and 4,800 registered white voters. Black adults numbered 8,757. Twenty were registered. So it was a momentous occasion when, on April 9, 1963 14 black men, careful to walk into Lexington by twos so as not to appear to be demonstrating, approached the courthouse to register. A posse of 30 white men assemble by the sheriff greeted them, while a team of FBI observers watched. The Advertiser’s story was low-key; by contrast, the Herald screamed of a “tense situation,” as it reported that Deputy Sheriff Andrew Smith had formed the posse “as a precautionary measure should outside agitators arrive and create trouble.”
The first man to step across the threshold of the registrar’s office that day was a farmer named Hartman Turnbow. A month later, night riders firebombed his home. The assailants chose Mr. Turnbow’s little house near the railway tracks not only because of his audacity, but because John Ball had been sleeping in the back bedroom. They launched one of their Molotov cocktails through the bedroom window, but the organizer happened to be away. When Mr. Turnbow’s wife and 16-year-old daughter fled from the flames, the night riders opened fire on them, but the farmer drove them off with his own rifle. The bombing brought John Ball back, along with three other SNCC workers, including Bob Moses, SNCC’s top organizer in Mississippi, who was jailed at once when he tried to photograph the scene. The following day, Mr. Turnbow and the four civil rights workers were charged with setting the fire themselves.
While the Herald ignored the assault and later repeated the party line that the activists had faked the attack, Mrs. Smith was at pains to refute the claim. Three of the editorials in her Pulitzer Prize portfolio are concerned with the incident and the civil rights suit filed by the Justice Department that arose from it. She concluded the last with a warning to her white neighbors: “This is a world of change. The old ways of doing things will not suffice in this day and age. We cannot stop the clock. We ignore these facts at our own peril.”
The black community reciprocated her support in many ways, few of which have been recognized in previous accounts of Hazel Brannon Smith’s long ordeal. Individuals and the movement gave her their trust. “I mean she could talk to any black and whatever they know they warn’t afraid to share it with her,” recalled Walter Bruce, a civil rights activist. “And she come to a whole lot of meetin’ that even some black folk was scared to come, but she’d always be at those meetin’ and takin’ notes and the the next week it’s goin’ to come out in the paper.” As the Citizens’ Council boycott tightened its grip on her advertisers, the income Mrs. Smith derived from job printing grew ever more important. When the storm broke over printing of the Mississippi Free Press, Mrs. Smith told Jet magazine, “If every business in Holmes County doing business with Negroes should be deprived of that business, it would be only a short time until they were all broke.” Asserting that printing the paper was just business may have been disingenuous, but the economic calculation contained a grain of truth.
“The only business that she could get, at least when I was working there, was from the black community,” said Willie B. Davis, a retired high school science teacher, who worked his way through school at the print shop and who was particularly close to Mrs. Smith. The jobs were substantial. They included the monthly Baptist Observer, which Mrs. Smith edited as will as printed. Mr. Davis remembered sweating to get out books for the black Baptist Convention, the job he was working on when the printing plant was bombed in 1967. Reflecting on her evolution from the days when she supported segregation, he attributed the change to her reliance on African Americans for work in the plant as white advertisers deserted her papers. Not only did the boycott give her an economic incentive to support the aspirations of black people, he said, but also it brought her into increasing contact with them and deepened her understanding.
Another veteran of the Advertiser print shop. J. T. Wiley, who followed the example of so many Southern blacks and migrated north in search of economic opportunity, used his experience at the Advertiser plant to land a job as a printer at the Defender, Chicago’s African-American newspaper. When Mrs. Smith spoke in Chicago in 1965, Mr. Wiley called to invite her to visit. Then he went to the Defender’s publisher and suggested that she write a series for the paper. “It helped her a while, you know, the money from that,” he said.
A year and a half after wining the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for her “steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition,” Mrs. Smith was in such dire economic straits that supporters began fund-raising campaigns. Columbia Journalism Review launched a nationwide appeal to members of the profession. It yielded not quite $2,700. But just before Thanksgiving, the poor black farmers, teachers, preachers and business people of Holmes County filled the auditorium at Saints Junior College in Lexington to overflowing for Editor’s Appreciation Day, where the college president presented Mrs. Smith with a handmade box decorated by teachers. Inside it was an orchid and $2,855.22.
“Of all the people in the world, I think I am the most blessed,” wrote the beleaguered editor in the next edition of the Advertiser. “It was the most wonderful day of my life.”
Shortly thereafter, the organizers of Editor’s Appreciation Day formed a support committee to serve as a permanent counterweight to the Citizens’ Council boycott. In 1965, the Holmes County civil rights movement flexed its muscles with demonstrations, a renewed voter registration campaign and a push to integrate the schools. In September, an anonymous two-page tract threatened retaliation and singled out Mrs. Smith, warning, “Her Communist financed holiday in Holmes County is just about over.” Odell Durham, whose children were among the first African Americans to attend Durant’s previously all-white elementary school that fall, still remembers how vulnerable she felt when she opened her front door to find that leaflet, left on her doorstep during the night. Thirty-five years later she can still quote its concluding threat almost word for word. The civil rights movement responded with a selective buying campaign directed at local business. An unnamed “prominent Negro” told the Advertiser the campaign was sparked by deep resentment of the school boycott and by “the way they have treated Miss Hazel.” Two years later, the movement made its support for Mrs. Smith explicit. Among the three objectives of a new selective buying campaign was a demand that the city, county and local businesses advertise in her paper.
As her fame spread, Mrs. Smith was at pains to portray herself as a moderate, perhaps in an effort to appeal to as broad a base of support as she could. “I don’t approve of enforced integration any more than enforced segregation, but there ought to be a middle ground,” she told Sue Ann Wood of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat after winning the Golden Quill Award of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in 1963. When the National Council of Women named her the “Woman of Conscience” for 1964, she told the audience at the Biltmore Hotel in New York that she did not want to be characterized as “a crusading newspaper editor.” Her friend Hodding Carter also influenced the way journalists and scholars portrayed her. “Nowhere outside the Deep South would Hazel Brannon Smith be labeled even a liberal in her racial views,” he asserted in an article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961, reprinted in his book First Person Rural in 1963. “If she must be categorized, then call her a moderate.” Thirty years later, the academic historians Neil McMillen, Charles M. Payne and John Dittmer followed suit.
None of them can have read and absorbed the body of Hazel Brannon Smith’s writing during the civil rights era. From the time the Holmes County movement began with the arrival of SNCC organizers in Mileston and Hartman Turnbow’s effort to register to vote in 1963, relentlessly, week in and week out, “Through Hazel Eyes” and her editorials advocate justice for African Americans. They burn with indignation. Not once during those years did Mrs. Smith call for compromise. Not once did she suggest that a demonstration be called off. Not once did she conclude that the freedom movement was moving too fast or too far. She did not criticize the movement’s tactics, even when they included economic pressure, although she had often said it was the Citizens’ Council’s use of boycotts that originally led her to oppose the organization. While most of Mississippi’s journalists joined its politicians in denouncing “outside agitators,” Mrs. Smith welcomed the 33 Freedom Summer volunteers who came to Holmes County to organize Freedom Schools and register blacks to vote. “One of the most popular misconceptions in Mississippi is the idea that if everyone would just leave us alone we would work out all our problems and everything would be fine. . . . The truth is we have been left pretty much alone for nearly one hundred years–and we have not faced up to our problems as well as we should,” she wrote.
As schools opened in September 1965, the one-time segregationist pressed white families to abandon their boycott of integrated classes and return their children to the public schools. “Mississippi has no future without a strong public school system. Neither does Holmes County,” she declared in a front-page editorial. While she summoned her greatest passion to assail attacks against African Americans and threats to her newspapers, she did not advocate nonviolence, reporting matter-of-factly when black farmers established armed brigades to protect homes and meeting places threatened by night riders. When she got a threatening phone call in February 1966, she minced no words concerning her attitude toward self-defense. “The first one that put his foot on my home grounds would have been shot dead,” she wrote in “Through Hazel Eyes.” “The same goes for any future intruders–stay away from my home if you don’t want to get killed. And you may consider this a public notice and fair warning.” Mrs. Smith came to understand how obdurate and how powerful the opponents of equality were. Writing about the assassination of Martin Luther King, whom she called “a modern messiah,” she lamented that “there has been little change in the white man’s mind and virtually no change in the white man’s power structure. Every step forward has had to be forced–with the ballot, the boycott and continuing tensions and pressures.” The editorial ended on a pessimistic note: “We hold our future in our own hands–but we are by no means certain white America will be worthy or equal to the task of preserving this beloved nation.”
Hazel Brannon Smith was no moderate. She was a wholehearted supporter of integration and of black political power who loathed the intertwined apparatus of the government, Citizens’ Council and Klan that underpinned American apartheid.
In the end, the sympathy and indignation her plight aroused could not save Hazel Brannon Smith. The roof literally fell in on her printing press. Impoverished and beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, in 1985 she closed the second oldest newspaper in the state and moved in with her sister’s family, to the home she had grown up in in Gadsden, Alabama. She died, nearly destitute, in a nursing home in Tennessee in 1994. To this day, the derelict Advertiser building in the shadow of Lexington’s town square sits open to the elements, as though to remind those with long enough memories of the price of defiance.
Did her passion and her sacrifice make a difference? That’s not an easy question to answer. Over and over again she asserted that most white people in Mississippi were decent and could be aroused from their torpor if she could help them overcome their fear. “Surely one day, some of my former friends will come to understand it is their personal freedom for which I have been fighting as well as my own,” she wrote plaintively in 1966. If they did, they kept quiet about it.
Most of the courage and all of the effort to achieve racial justice came from Holmes County’s African Americans. They built the Freedom Democratic Party, which continues to meet on the third Sunday of each month to this day. They elected the state’s first black representative since Reconstruction. In 124 lawsuits they sought school integration and voting rights and challenged discrimination. They marched and picketed and boycotted businesses and on more than one occasion engaged in gun battles with night riders. Yet Mrs. Smith is remembered in Holmes County’s black community. A group of men passing the time this February in a small convenience store, near the spot where Alfred Brown fell, talked of the killing and of Mrs. Smith’s exposé as though it had happened four days, not four decades, ago. Her unflinching reporting of assaults on black residents was a recurring theme in interviews with participants in Holmes County’s civil rights movement and with African Americans who had worked for her. Her newspapers “let the peoples know what was going on and didn’t hide anything,” said Odell Durham, who joined the movement in 1964 when a white Freedom Summer volunteer knocked on her door and asked, “Don’t you want equal rights?” Even before he met her, recalled Willie B. Davis, who worked at the Advertiser printing plant in the 1960s, he knew “if anyone was doing anything to blacks in Holmes County, Miss Hazel was going to write it. She’s going to expose them.” Walter Bruce explained that participants in the movement trusted Mrs. Smith because “well, you know like somebody getting beat up or something–they tried a pretend it happened thisaway and she just outspoken, and whatever she believed in, you know, this is what happened, that’s what she put in her paper.” Mayor Wiley concurred: She’d write an editorial, you know, she wrote what she believed happened, and that just wasn’t a popular thing at that time.”
Today in Holmes County, as in other Mississippi counties where African Americans form the majority, blacks are well represented in the ranks of politicians, police officers and government workers. But although the movement swept away legal segregation, the public schools of the county are virtually all black. White children attend private academies. On a driving tour of Lexington, Mr. Davis pointed to a new development of luxury homes. “A lot of black folks don’t even know these streets exist,” he said. Elsewhere, he identified streets as black or white, with just a few housing people of both races. The very poorest homes–sagging little shotgun shacks–house black families.
“It has been a big difference, but it’s still a whole lot work to do. Goin’ always be marchin’. One hundred thousand years from now goin’ to still be marchin’,” Mrs. Durham summed up.
All the African Americans I interviewed believe the bloody record of repression in Holmes County would have been still worse without Hazel Brannon Smith. “Can you imagine Lexington without the Lexington Advertiser? Or Holmes County without Hazel Brannon Smith? Why they would put yours eyes out,” said Dr. Arenia Mallory on Editor’s Appreciation Day in 1965. “Had it not been for her paper, the abuse that was happening I think it would have been on a larger scale. It was somewhat curbed because of the fact that they knew that Hazel would print it–regardless, she would print it,” said Mr. Davis. Several movement veterans also found in Mrs. Smith’s story some reason for optimism, because a white person showed the capacity to change and the willingness to join them. “I think she helped people to believe that we can achieve a semblance of justice,” said LaVerne Lindsey, a plaintiff in a groundbreaking discrimination suit against the Mississippi Cooperative Extension. Hazel Brannon Smith was part of the movement, said Mr. Bruce. “I don’t really think she could have put no more in than she did.”
Author’s note: “The way our people speak is part of our heritage and we’re proud of it,” explained the young students who compiled the marvelous oral history of the Holmes County civil rights movement Minds Stayed on Freedom (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991). I have followed their lead in not changing the way the people I interviewed speak. I have used courtesy titles, because it was clear from the way people used them even when referring to close friends that they remain important to African Americans who were so recently denied this mark of respect. So important was being addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in Holmes County that the use of courtesy titles by merchants was one of three demands for ending a boycott of Lexington businesses in 1967.
This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of Media Studies Journal, which was devoted to journalistic courage.