Journalist who sought justice posthumously honored

Published 11:37 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2009

As editor and publisher of a small-town newspaper in the Mississippi Delta, Hazel Brannon Smith was boycotted by fellow whites and condemned in the state Senate because she advocated equal treatment of blacks during the volatile 1950s and ’60s.

Now, 15 years after Smith died penniless, Mississippi lawmakers have approved a resolution to belatedly honor her courage.

“A lot of us think sometimes that only black people went through something. There were decent white people who went through a lot of things, too,” said Rep. Willie Bailey of Greenville, a black lawmaker who was among the resolution’s sponsors.

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Smith was publisher of the Lexington Advertiser in Holmes County, a rural area about 40 miles north of Jackson.

During the early 1960s, she was the target of violence when a cross was burned in her yard, according to the legislative resolution. The economic boycott was led by the powerful white Citizens Council, which started a rival newspaper, the Lexington Advertiser, to drain advertising accounts away from Smith’s paper.

In 1964, Smith became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for her “steadfast adherence to her editorial duties in the face of great pressure and opposition,” the resolution reads.

Smith grew up in Gadsden, Ala., and moved to Mississippi in 1935, fresh out of the University of Alabama. She didn’t begin her journalistic career as a civil-rights crusader. She supported the segregationist Dixiecrats during the 1948 presidential election and once wrote “the South and America are a white man’s country,” according to the resolution.

Her awakening to racial injustice came one Saturday night in 1954, when the white sheriff in Holmes County killed a black man outside a beer joint on the main street of Lexington. Veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor said the sheriff told the black man to run, then shot the man in the back.

“She lambasted the sheriff on page one of her paper and in her column,” Minor said of Smith. “The white community, which controlled the economic and political power in the county, turned against her.”

Minor, who has covered the state for more than 60 years, was a friend of Smith. During a brief ceremony Monday in the House, Minor accepted a copy of the resolution honoring Smith, who had no direct descendants.

“It’s really impossible today to think about how courageous a journalist or an editor, particularly, had to be back in the 1950s and 1960s to speak out for human rights and to speak out for civil rights,” Minor said.

Rep. Bryant Clark, a Democrat from Holmes County, said Smith was condemned on the floor of the Mississippi Senate in 1963 after agents from the Sovereignty Commission snapped photos of her delivering stacks of newspapers she had published for a civil-rights group in Jackson. The Sovereignty Commission was a state spy agency that sought to preserve racial segregation. It was dismantled in the 1970s.

“I thought it was only proper and fitting that we come back as a legislative body and make an attempt not to try to undo the wrong but to make amends and to recognize that she was an important citizen of the state of Mississippi,” said Clark. His father, Democratic Rep. Robert Clark, in 1967 became the first black person elected to the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction.

Among the elder Clark’s supporters: Hazel Brannon Smith.

Bryant Clark said one of the most beautiful houses in Holmes County was Smith’s former mansion, modeled after the plantation home Tara in “Gone With the Wind.” Smith lost the home amid the economic pressure that drove her newspaper out of business. She developed Alzheimer’s disease during the 1980s and died in a nursing home in Cleveland, Tenn., in 1994, where she had gone to be near a niece.

“Because of the positions she took,” Bryant Clark said, “she went from riches to rags.”

The resolution is House Concurrent Resolution 83.