Hazel Brannon Smith (1914-1994): A Mississippi Baptist Journalist Without Honor in Holmes County, Mississippi.
This biographical sketch of Hazel Brannon Smith examines the transformation in Smith's rejection of segregation and support for equal justice and political equality for blacks (1) through the lens of her five decades as a Mississippi journalist committed to free speech and a free press.
Hazel Brannon was born on February 3, 1914, in Alabama City, Alabama. She and her four siblings grew up in a middle-income family in which attendance at nearby Dwight Baptist Church had an important influence on her formative years. The Southern Baptist faith she embraced included a literal or fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as history, which she did not question until the late 1950s. Moreover, as a child, she accompanied her mother who read Bible stories to children at black churches and she saw her father, who was a part-time electrical contractor, treat blacks fairly and with respect. (2) Years later she recalled that as a child "I was taught to love everyone and not to hate anyone." (3) Nonetheless, she grew up in an era when blacks and whites had defined places and roles, with blacks clearly occupying a subordinate role.
A precocious student, Hazel graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and wanted to enroll at the University of Alabama, but her parents believed she was too young for college, so she had to wait until she was older. (4) Over the next two years she worked at the Etowah Observer, a weekly newspaper of Alabama City, where she wrote personal stories and society and front-page articles, thereby acquiring firsthand experience in all aspects of producing a weekly newspaper--which would be invaluable when she became the owner of the Durant News four years later.
When Brannon was eighteen she enrolled at the University of Alabama where she majored in journalism. She became a member of the staff of the student newspaper, the Crimson and White, and was named editor in 1934. While editor, she wrote two editorials that were harbingers of her future as a journalist. One editorial praised the decision of the student newspaper staff at Louisiana State University for resigning rather than obeying an order from university officials not to print anything critical of Gov. Huey P. Long. Her praise reflected the values of Clarence Cason, head of the Journalism Department and advisor to the Crimson and White, that journalists had a responsibility to do more than just reflect the values of the community; they had to support what best benefited the community. (5) This required a free press that would praise issues, events, and people when appropriate and criticize them when inappropriate. The other editorial involved Thomas Hocutt, a graduate of a black college in North Carolina, who had applied for admission to the all-white University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy. She wrote that he should have had "common sense enough not to create controversial situations nor stir up feelings that are better left dormant." (6)
After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1936, Brannon was determined to own a weekly newspaper She found one for sale in Durant, Mississippi, The Durant News, which had a circulation of only six hundred subscribers and was derided by locals as the "Durant Excuse." (7) She purchased the weekly news-paper with a $3,000 loan from the Durant Bank, which was extraordinary because she had no collateral except a sharp mind, a willingness to work hard, great self-confidence, enthusiasm about the future, and firsthand experience working on the Etowah Observer.
Brannon personalized the newspaper by including names of residents in announcements of local club meetings, births, hospital patients, family reunions, school activities, marriages, obituaries, and meetings of the city council and the Etowah County board of supervisors. She joined the First Baptist Church in Durant and became involved in community affairs. In her column, "Through Hazel Eyes," she offered her opinion on matters she considered important and invited readers who disagreed with her to write a letter to the editor. In 1937 public health officials proposed sponsoring a clinic to treat an upsurge in venereal disease. Believing venereal disease was a community problem requiring a community solution, Brannon supported the clinic in her column, which displeased some readers who believed this was not appropriate for public discussion by a proper lady. Rejecting this role, she retorted, "I ain't no lady. I'm a newspaper woman." (8) As her readers learned, she was a pugnacious journalist who did not back off when anyone challenged what she believed to be her responsibility as editor to promote free speech and a free press.
The Durant News prospered, with circulation more than doubling within four years, enabling Brannon to pay off her loan. In April 1943 she bought a second newspaper, the Lexington Advertiser, Lexington, Mississippi, with fourteen hundred subscribers. In the first edition of the Advertiser under her ownership she declared: "We shall stand for upholding the traditions of the past and improving them; to publish a paper that is read from cover to cover wherever it goes. By honest, fair dealing and truly serving our readers we will be handling the duties and obligations involved in a free press." (9)
Brannon upheld a significant Mississippi tradition in the aftermath of a four-day race riot in Detroit in late June 1943. She wrote in "Through Hazel Eyes" that such a riot could not occur in Mississippi because the white man and the black man "have dwelt together in peace and harmony in the South for many years because each has known his place and kept it...the South and America is a white man's country, and both races know it." (10) In her view, Jim Crow segregation laws and social norms were good for both races because they established boundaries that promoted harmonious relations. Moreover, as long as blacks lived within these laws and social norms, they could count on whites being their friends. Years later she moved away from supporting Jim Crow segregation, but she still struggled with an implicit paternalism that blacks should follow white leadership in resolving racial issues.
After federal repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Mississippi outlawed the sale of alcohol, so Mississippi residents went to Tennessee or Louisiana to purchase it, depriving the state of tax revenue. To correct this situation, the legislature required every bottle of liquor in Mississippi to bear a Mississippi $10 paid stamp; any bottle of liquor without this stamp would be confiscated. However, Holmes County had a substantial bootlegger operation that included individuals who sold whiskey without paying the $10 tax and juke joints and honky-tonks where gambling and drinking flourished.
Hazel Brannon opposed prohibition, but she also opposed illegal activity associated with bootlegging because it undermined law and order, which she believed was a foundation of modern society. In early 1945 she began a crusade for enforcement of the law, calling attention to an apparent indifference of law enforcement officials to bootlegger operations. A Holmes County grand jury issued fifty-two indictments for illegal liquor sales and gambling. By the spring of 1947 the indictments had shut down some bootlegging and gambling operations, but after several months they were back in business. (11) Brannon's solution was to elect a sheriff who would enforce the law and clean up the county, so she endorsed Ellis Wynn. Even before Wynn took office, bootlegging and gambling operations began leaving the county. It appeared that Brannon's support for law and order had prevailed, but there were unintended consequences to her success.
Brannon's success with her two newspapers, along with her flamboyant lifestyle--which included driving a white Cadillac convertible and wearing expensive dresses, furs, and fashionable hats--made some white members of the community envious. (12) Her attacks on county officials because of lax legal enforcement against illegal liquor sales and gambling angered whites who controlled political and economic power in the county. Moreover, the implication that bootlegging and gambling encouraged criminals and lower-class people to come to the county did not bode well with white residents who frequented the gambling joints or used the services of a bootlegger.
Several months later Brannon's enemies got their revenge during a trial involving five white men charged with the murder of a black farm worker. On the first day of the trial Bannon was late and did not hear the presiding judge instruct witnesses not to discuss the case outside of the courtroom. After the court recessed for lunch Brannon spoke briefly with a witness to clarify her testimony. An hour later the judge summoned her to the courtroom where he charged her with contempt of court because she had violated his order that no one was to talk with witnesses until the trial was completed. Rejecting her explanation that she was unaware of his instruction, he found her guilty, fined her, and sentenced her to fifteen days in jail. He suspended the fine and the jail sentence for two years, "pending good behavior." (13) This revenge was short-lived because in April 1947 the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned her conviction.
Despite her reputation as a crusader, Hazel Brannon was a political conservative. She opposed modest efforts of the Roosevelt administration to support equal employment for blacks through the Fair Employment Practices Committee. (14) She considered the president's support for abolition of the poll tax unacceptable because voter rights were the exclusive domain of states and black Mississippians could not be informed voters. In the 1948 presidential election she supported the Dixiecrat Party because it supported a strict constitutional government and the sovereign rights of state. There was no role for the federal government in the promotion of civil rights or education because they too were the exclusive domain of states. She supported Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy's fight against Communists, railing against people in the government who were protecting Communists. (15)
Brannon's religious views were equally conservative and consistent with fundamentalist Southern Baptist belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible as history. In a 1954 "Through Hazel Eyes" column she affirmed God as the "original segregationist," writing that God had created separate races, not one race. It followed that "intermarriage of the races is a sin because God did not intend for us to mix in marriage." (16) Her concern for protecting racial integrity was disingenuous because it was a cloak for white superiority. Moreover, her insistence that blacks and whites in Mississippi had learned to live together harmoniously bought into the myth that blacks were not concerned about any inequities caused by segregation and that any disruptions were the results of outside agitators. (17)
Under orders from her doctors to slow down, 35-year-old Brannon took an extended cruise in the fall of 1949. While on the trip she met bachelor Walter Derby Smith, and they fell in love. (18) After a whirlwind engagement they were married in the First Baptist Church of Durant on March 21, 1950 (hereafter she is referenced as Hazel Brannon Smith and he as Smitty). The Smiths bought twenty acres of land on the outskirts of Lexington where they built a modest house. Later they purchased a hundred-acre farm where they planned to raise purebred cattle. In 1952 the Holmes County Community Hospital hired Smitty as administrator. Five years later he was fired, allegedly because of poor management of personnel, but the real reason was that his wife had become too controversial. (19) He then began working at the Lexington Advertiser where he ably used his skill as a photographer.
As the turbulence surrounding Hazel Brannon Smith's fight against illicit liquor sales and gambling subsided, a series of explosive issues in Holmes County emerged that challenged three of her bedrock principles: free speech, equal justice, and public education. The 1954 decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal public schools were unconstitutional ignited a firestorm of opposition across the state. In her May 7, 1954 "Through Hazel Eyes" column Smith asserted the court did not have the authority to declare school segregation unconstitutional because control of education was a state's right. Moreover, black students were not as advanced as white students and any effort to force integration would harm both white and black students.
On July 11, 1954 a group of white community leaders in Indianola, Mississippi created the Citizens Council to block implementation of Brown v. Board of Education--even if it meant closing public schools. A prominent Holmes County businessman told Smith a Citizens Council would be formed in Lexington and asked her to promote it in her editorials. After he described how the council would use economic pressure and physical threats of violence to prevent any deviation (white or black) from the council's agenda, she objected to the use of intimidation and force as a violation of free speech and therefore declined to publicize the Citizens Council because it smacked of thought control. (20) Later, responding to a query from a newspaper reporter who asked Smith if she wanted to do away with the Citizens Council, she sarcastically said: "An American has a right to be a bigot if he so chooses. Where I draw the line is where they insist that we be bigots too. I don't mind a person not advertising with us because he doesn't want to, but I resent organized pressure brought to bear to keep him from advertising if he does want to." (21)
Despite her public opposition to integration, her objections to the Citizens Council raised suspicion among the white establishment about her loyalty to protecting the Mississippi way of life. This suspicion increased in December 1954 when she opposed a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to close public schools to avoid integration, arguing the prosperity of the state was linked to public education and schools should not be closed. In a special referendum the amendment was overwhelmingly approved, with the vote in Holmes County 2,393-70. (22) Clearly, Hazel and Smitty were out of step with the white electorate in Holmes County.
On Saturday night, July 1, 1954, Holmes County Sheriff Richard E. Byrd questioned a group of black men in front of a black nightclub. Angered at their responses, he hit one of them with a black jack and then told him to "get going." As the man ran away, the sheriff fired his weapon toward him, wounding him in his thigh. Smith learned about the incident and interviewed the victim, several witnesses, and a white doctor who treated his gunshot wound. She wrote in an editorial that "The laws of America are for everyone--rich and poor, strong and weak, white and black and all the other races that dwell in our land." (23) Citing previous instances of Sheriff Byrd's police brutality against blacks, she called for his resignation. Byrd sued her for libel, demanding $57,500 in damages. During the trial Smith testified that she believed the facts as presented to her by several witnesses were accurate. Several deputies testified that the sheriff had not fired his weapon. The jury found Smith guilty and awarded Sheriff Byrd a $10,000 judgment. A year later the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the jury's decision and award on the grounds Smith was protected under First Amendment rights. (24) Her editorial support for equal legal rights for blacks convinced many whites in Holmes County that anyone who took the word of a black person over that of a white person was an enemy. Friends of longstanding stopped talking with Hazel and Smitty, there were fewer dinner invitations, and she began to feel like a non-person. (25)
To silence Smith, the Holmes County chapter of the Citizens Council organized an economic boycott of her newspapers, pressuring businesses to stop buying ads and individuals to cancel subscriptions. They wanted to create a newspaper to reflect the values of residents of Holmes County. (26) Initially, the boycott had a minimal impact on advertising revenue. However, the story was different after the rival Holmes County Herald began operation in 1959. It made a major dent in the advertising revenue of Smith's newspapers, creating ongoing operational losses that she and Smitty covered by bank loans. The burden of paying off these loans along with other expenses drove the couple into a downward economic spiral that would worsen each year.
The Citizens Council's opposition to Smith is ironic because in 1954 she opposed school integration. In an interview with an Ohio reporter she explained that it is better for "colored children" to have their own schools because they are not at the same educational level as white children." (27) Clearly, Smith had bought into the notion that a quality education for white students was not possible in a desegregated school, a view she would disavow a decade later.
By 1960 the economic boycott and the success of the Herald had put the Smiths in a serious financial pinch. Hazel confided to her friend Hodding Carter Jr. that she was unsure how much longer she and Smitty could continue to operate the newspaper. (28) Carter, editor and publisher of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and widely respected across the country, believed it was important to the profession of journalism that her voice of reason and moderation not be silenced. He organized a national campaign to solicit funds to offset the loss of revenue created by the economic boycott of Hazel's two papers in Holmes County and to ensure that her voice would be heard. Over the next three years the campaign raised about $10,000, which barely covered expenses for one year. (29)
Outside the state Hazel received national acclaim for her courageous journalism. In 1960 the University of Southern Illinois awarded her the Elijah P. Lovejoy Courage in Journalism Award for her "unceasing battle year after year in support for law and order against the forces of evil seeking to undermine the standards of right and wrong as recognized in the community and which sought desperately to destroy her newspaper because of its effective leadership." (30) An Associated Press story about the award erroneously reported it was for Smith's support for integration, which ratcheted up white hostility to her and her newspapers.
Challenges for Hazel continued in 1961 as she supported equal justice for all. When civil rights Freedom Riders came to Jackson in February she urged authorities to acknowledge their rights as interstate travelers under court decisions and federal regulations. A month later, after nine young blacks organized a "study-in" to desegregate the Jackson Public Library, she wrote, "The great tragedy in our state today is that a group of young people feel that in Mississippi their future is hopeless--that they will be forever relegated to 'second-class' citizenship because of the color of their skin." (31)
In December investigators for the Sovereignty Commission took surveillance photographs of Hazel and Smitty meeting with the founders of the Mississippi Free Press, a black weekly newspaper, and sent copies to every member of the state legislature, alleging the Smiths were supporting the newspaper. On January 4, 1962, Holmes County state senator T.M. Williams denounced Smith on the floor of the Senate as a traitor to Holmes County and the state of Mississippi because of her support for the Mississippi Free Press and use of her newspaper to change the race relations most whites accepted. (32) Smith counterpunched, vehemently declaring that her enemies were trying to drive her out of the state through a vicious smear campaign and that printing the Mississippi Free Press was a business arrangement. Moreover, the Citizens Council was trying to take over the state and "was a menace to every citizen and is to be no less feared than the Gestapo of Hitler's Germany and the paid informants of the Communist conspiracy." (33) Her declaration that "we cannot keep down 42 percent of our population without staying down ourselves" (34) suggested she was on the of cusp of acknowledging that white supremacy was as much a burden for whites as it was for blacks.
Even as Smith called for equal justice for all, there was growing tension across the state over the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. By September 1962 it was clear that Governor Barnett, with the support of the Citizens Council and the Mississippi Legislature, would resist a court-ordered enrollment of Meredith. In a September 20 editorial Smith despaired that the state "was taking off down a dead-end road that could close every state-owned college and university." (35) Four days after the riot at Ole Miss to block Meredith's enrollment, Smith held Governor Barnett and the Citizens Council accountable, declaring they promoted an atmosphere of racial hatred that resulted in violence and Mississippians "should hang their heads in shame... [because] we are now regarded throughout the civilized world as an ignorant, narrow, bigoted, intolerant people with little respect for human rights and Christian values." (36) In 1962 Smith stopped attending church in Lexington, because of the hostility of church members toward her.
The years 1963-1964 were pivotal for Hazel Brannon Smith as she increasingly promoted equality for blacks. On April 9, 1963, fourteen black men and women, led by Hartman Turnbow, came to the courthouse in Lexington to register to vote. All fourteen failed tests that included questions that were impossible to answer. Several weeks later fire bombs were thrown into the house where Turnbow, his wife, and daughter were sleeping. He drove the attackers off with rifle fire and, with the help of a neighbor, put out the fire. The next morning the sheriff inspected the site and arrested Turnbow, charging him with arson for firebombing his own house. Smith's editorial, "Arrest of Bombing Is Grave Disservice," opened with the declaration "It is not moral or just for any man to live in fear or be compelled to sleep with a loaded gun by his bedside," followed by a statement that it was absurd to believe Turnbow would set fire to his own house. Such a disservice to the community would not have occurred, she wrote, "if we had demanded that all citizens be accorded equal treatment and protection under law." (37) Eventually, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
Unlike most other newspapers in the state, the Lexington Advertiser reported that the assassination of Medgar Evers on June 11, 1963 took the life of a man "who was a living symbol of the freedom Mississippi Negroes are determined to achieve." "Evers' death," Smith explained, "would not kill the freedom movement but only ensure it would grow in strength." (38) She predicted that new leaders would not be so moderate in their views or as patient and reasonable. "God help us," she wrote, "when the Negro starts hating in Mississippi." (39)
On the Saturday night before Medgar Evers' assassination a Lexington policeman killed Alfred Brown, a black veteran of World War II, after he allegedly resisted arrest for drunkenness and threatened the policeman with a knife. In the June 13, 1963 issue of the Advertiser, Smith wrote that Brown, who suffered from mental illness relating to his military service, had been recently released from the veterans hospital after treatment and wore a bracelet that identified him as a mental patient. Two police officers ignored a cousin's explanation that Brown was sick and should be taken home. One policeman hit Brown with a blackjack as he resisted being frisked. Brown pulled a small knife from his pocket and slashed at the policeman, who then fired two shots at Brown, mortally wounding him. Smith's competitor, the Holmes County Herald, treated Brown's death as justifiable self-defense while Smith called it a senseless death that could have been avoided.
Her editorial writings in 1963 about race relations and freedom of the press in Mississippi won Smith the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing "For steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition." The first woman to receive this award, she received congratulations from people around the country, but in Holmes County the response of whites was indifference or the charge that she wrote editorials for the purpose of winning prizes such as the Pulitzer. (40) She fiercely rebutted this charge in an interview in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, saying she ran her newspapers "for the public good...and to defend and protect the freedom of all Mississippians to say and do what they want to do without taking dictation" from anyone. (41)
Smith's advocacy of social and political changes became more conspicuous in her support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, gender, religious, or national origin in voter registration, interstate-related public facilities, and the workplace. (42) In July she welcomed thirty college students to Holmes County to participate in a "sort of a Peace Corps type initiative" to set up Freedom Schools where high school students could take classes in subjects of interest to them, manage a community center for recreation activities, and help adults prepare to register to vote, adding "these young people wouldn't be here if we had not largely ignored our responsibilities to our Negro citizens." (43) She rejected the belief that the college students were outside agitators who could only cause troubles and that, if left alone, Mississippi could solve its racial problems. (44)
In late June the Holmes County Herald, along with all but two newspapers in the state--the Greenville Democrat-Times and the Lexington Advertiser--described the disappearance of three civil rights workers--Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman--after their arrest and release in Philadelphia, Mississippi as a publicity hoax or the work of Communists. After their bodies were found in early August, buried under a recently constructed dam, Hazel Smith lamented the murders, declaring "Mississippi is now blotted with another crime which we will never live down." (45)
Smith displayed an even stronger stance on civil rights and social justice for black Mississippians in May 1965 when she endorsed a report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that "since 1875 Negroes in Mississippi have been systematically excluded from the franchise by legislative enactment, fraud and violence." (46) She supported the 1965 Voting Rights Act under which federal registrars were empowered to register voters for federal elections where there existed an established pattern of discrimination against blacks who wanted to register to vote. This would be a new day for Holmes County: two-thirds of its voters were black, and the white political and economic power structure would have to learn how to work constructively with newly enfranchised blacks.
Another aspect of a new day for blacks in Holmes County was the decision of the Holmes County board of supervisors, along with five other counties in Central Mississippi, to participate in INC, a community action program for six counties funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity. One goal was to fund Head Start in Holmes County, which Smith strongly supported because it offered black children a preschool learning environment in the summer to enable them to be ready, both psychologically and mentally, to begin the learning process. (47) A second goal of Central Mississippi, INC was to fund community learning centers where black adults could participate in adult education and training that would qualify them for more meaningful employment. Smith not only promoted Central Mississippi, INC through the Lexington Advertiser, but she also served on its board of directors. (48)
The full impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Holmes County became apparent in the summer of 1967 when Robert C. Clark, a respected black school teacher, football coach, and community leader, announced his candidacy for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Backed by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and supported by Hazel Brannon Smith and Claude Ramsay, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, Clark defeated his white opponent in the general election by a narrow margin of 3,510-3,394 votes, becoming the first black member of the Mississippi House since Reconstruction. (49) Smith praised Clark's election, declaring she was confident he would be an honest and conscientious legislator and "do everything within his power to serve all the people of Holmes County. (50) Yet three months later she criticized Clark for attending a Nation of Islam convention in Detroit because it advocated a separate state for blacks. From her perspective this was black racism, which was no better than white racism, and Clark's attendance at the convention had disappointed many of his supporters. (51)
Despite Smith's advocacy for the rights of blacks in Holmes County, her relations with them began deteriorating after they announced on September 21, 1967 a "selective buying campaign" against merchants to protest police brutality and menial employment opportunities in stores. Just as she opposed an economic boycott of her newspapers by the Citizens Council, she opposed this boycott because pressure was directed against any blacks who ignored the boycott, which put her at odds with the black leaders of the boycott. Even her relations with Robert Clark deteriorated. Acknowledging this deterioration in relations years later, he declared: "She never really accepted black people not doing what she wanted done. That was one of the things on which we did not see eye to eye. I respected her. I loved her. But you don't want to trade one taskmaster for another taskmaster." (52) Having invested so much of her life in fighting for equal justice for blacks in Holmes County, Smith found it a challenge to let go and let the black community chart its own course. Clark's assessment that Smith could not accept black people not doing what she wanted done suggests they now viewed her as a white paternalist, a view Smith would have rejected, claiming she acted only for the good of the community.
By 1970 the economic boycott of her newspapers had ended, and the Holmes County Board of Supervisors awarded the Lexington Advertiser a contract to print official county documents, but it was too little too late. In the 1970s Holmes County experienced minimal economic growth, and this slump along with a local radio station and two newspapers competing for the same limited advertising dollars required the Smiths to continue taking out mortgages on their home, other property, and the two newspapers they owned. In a bizarre turn of events in 1980, Hazel persuaded Smitty to sell their farm for $150,000 and to secure a $100,000 loan so she could achieve a lifelong dream of building a mansion that replicated Tara, the plantation house depicted in the movie, Gone with The Wind. (53) Her rationale is unclear, but it is likely she wanted the grandest house in Lexington as a way of saying, "Look what I can do." While personally satisfying to Hazel, "Hazelwood" was a terrible financial decision that increased the Smiths' indebtedness to almost $300,000 with no viable pathway to pay off the debt.
Despite poor relations with black activists in Holmes County, Smith continued to report accomplishments of blacks in the community. In 1978 she featured Hartman Turnbrow, who fifteen years earlier had ignored threats of physical violence when he attempted to register to vote. (54) On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education Smith reviewed events since the decision and declared, "Never in my wildest imagination did I dream we could make the progress we have made together, white and black together." (55) There was still more work to be done, but she was confident blacks and whites working together could lead to an even better future.
By 1980, at the age of sixty-six, the stress of writing "Through Hazel Eyes" columns and editorials in which Smith advocated positions most whites opposed--including equal justice and voting rights for blacks and a free press--had worn her down mentally, emotionally, and financially. Yet she persisted, because Holmes County was home to Hazel and Smitty and they had no other place to go. The accidental death of Smitty in 1982 while cleaning gutters on their home left Hazel alone to cope with their growing indebtedness and run both newspapers. She did most of her writing at Hazel-wood, seldom going to the newspaper office. There was little public interest in the Lexington Advertiser or Hazel Smith. Increasingly disoriented and seemingly oblivious to foreclosure notices from banks, in January 1986 her sister and brother-in-law took her back to Gadsden, Alabama, her birthplace. Three years later, after the death of her brother-in-law and sister, a niece moved her to Royal Care Nursing Home in Cleveland, Tennessee, where she worked. On May 14, 1994, Hazel Brannon Smith died of liver cancer.
News of Smith's death was published in major newspapers across the country, including a favorable obituary in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In Holmes County it is likely most of the adult population probably viewed her as a historical curiosity or relic with little understanding or appreciation of the price she and her husband paid for their support of equal justice and voting rights for blacks in Holmes County or for protection of a free press as a cornerstone for democracy. Nonetheless, fifteen years later the Mississippi Legislature adopted a resolution "Recognizing the Career Accomplishments of Hazel Brannon Smith and Acknowledging Her Paramount Contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the State of Mississippi." (56) There are two noteworthy aspects about this resolution. First, almost five decades earlier she had been branded as a traitor to the state of Mississippi because she had printed the first issue of the Mississippi Free Press. Second, one of the sponsors of the resolution in the House of Representatives was Bryant Clark, the son of Robert C. Clark, whom Smith had supported in his election to the Mississippi State Legislature in 1967.
Understandably, this resolution focused on the years from 1962 forward, so it did not acknowledge Smith's support for states rights and segregation in the 1940s and 1950s or her opposition to Brown v. Board of Education. By 1967 Smith had pivoted from her Jim Crow heritage to supporting full and equal rights for blacks. Believing race relations could be solved only through whites' acceptance of Negroes as human beings and citizens entitled to equal justice under law, she called for Christians, Jews, and people of all faiths to put into everyday practice the religious beliefs they professed. Undoubtedly with an eye toward her Baptist readers who believed God had forgiven their sins through Jesus Christ, she wrote: "As God accepted sinful man, so we must accept those who are unlike ourselves. When we reject other human beings on the grounds of race, we are rejecting God who made them even as He made us." (57) But what accounts for this pivot?
Certainly Smith's faith as a Christian is a plausible explanation, but it was a Christian faith that in 1967 differed substantially from the faith she had practiced since childhood. This begs the question of what led her to replace belief in God as the "original segregationist" with belief in a loving God who made all humans equal. The origins of this change in religious belief are to be found in her unwavering adherence to the first Amendment rights of free speech and a free press she learned at the University of Alabama. The criticism and opposition she experienced when she exposed lax law enforcement for allowing bootlegging in the 1940s, the economic pressures and intimidation of the Citizens Council in the 1950s, and law enforcement brutality toward blacks in the 1960s undoubtedly led her to question her beliefs about God as the original segregationist and the second-class citizenship status of blacks. Over time she discarded the argument of biblical segregation, affirming the brotherhood of man in which all people are equal because they are made in the image of God; in other words, she adapted her religious beliefs, so they were consistent with what she had learned in exercising her First Amendment personal free speech and journalism free press rights. She became a strong supporter of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts.
The evolution of Hazel Brannon Smith's view about race can best be seen and appreciated by comparing it with the contrasting views about race of two other prominent contemporary Mississippi Southern Baptists, Mary Dawson Cain (1904-1984) and Owen Cooper (1907-1986).
Mary Dawson Cain, editor and publisher of the Summit Sun, grew up in a Southern Baptist church near McComb, Mississippi, taught Sunday School, and participated in the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU). Cain never changed her view that segregation and the inferiority of blacks had a solid biblical and biological basis. She opposed Social Security because it undermined individual responsibility, Brown v. Board of Education because it was unconstitutional, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it placed limits on her freedom of association.
Owen Cooper was a widely respected businessman, president of Mississippi Chemical Corporation, a devout Southern Baptist deacon, and president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. Like Smith and Cain, he grew up in an environment where segregation was taken for granted. Moreover, he believed in God as the original segregationist and opposed Brown v. Board of Education. His evolution to belief in equality and social justice for all Mississippians began in the aftermath of the riot at Ole Miss over the admission of James Meredith in late September 1962. He joined more than one hundred other prominent business and civil leaders in deploring the violence and calling for the university to remain open. Two years later, as a member of the Mississippi Economic Council, he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act because opposition to it as the law of the land would undermine the relocation of manufacturing businesses to Mississippi, which he believed was critical for the state's economic growth. By 1967 he had discarded his belief in biblical segregation, explaining that he grew up in a religious value system that touted the brotherhood of man without ever applying this value system to civil rights. Gradually, he began realizing he had been "proof texting" his views on race and then started examining the works and teaching of Jesus in their entirety. According to Cooper, "When I considered the cumulative impact of his teachings and ministry in the light of my then-existing attitude toward race, I came to the conclusion I was wrong." (58) Hazel Brannon Smith and Owen Cooper reached the same conclusion about race but through different paths.
Unlike Cooper, Smith's view about race put her at odds with most white residents of Holmes County who were unwilling or unable to accept any change in the status of blacks. Ironically, in the late 1960s and 1970s her opposition to a selective economic boycott of Lexington merchants to protest police brutality and the limited employment opportunities for blacks because it impinged on free speech put her at odds with black activists in Holmes County. When her sister moved Hazel back to Gadsden in January 1986 it is likely few people, especially blacks, in Holmes County knew about it. The Jackson Links, a black professional women's service club, in conjunction with other black professional elites in Jackson decided to raise $500,000 to aid Smith. Unfortunately, this effort failed, falling far short of its goal by raising only $5,000. (59) A better measure of the contributions of Hazel Brannon Smith to Holmes County was evident in 1983 when the county elected a black chairman of supervisors, a black tax assessor, and a black sheriff. Sheriff Henry Huggins, a former sharecropper, credited "Miss Hazel" with much of the change in the county through her support of civil rights for blacks: "She was the only white person who had the guts to do it." (60)
Mississippi journalist Wilson "Bill" F. Minor delivered the eulogy at Hazel Brannon Smith's funeral. He concluded it with the ringing affirmation of her role in protecting freedom of the press in Holmes County for almost five decades: "If ever the martyrs to a free press in America are assembled in heaven, there is one thing I know: Hazel Brannon Smith will be in the front rank." (61)
(1) For major studies of Smith see the following publications. Arthur J. Kaul, in "Hazel Brannon Smith and The Lexington Advertiser," David R. Davies, ed., The Press and Race. Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 233-264, argues there was no change because Smith never supported integration. Rather, she was more a product of the Progressive Movement in the early part of the 20th century with its emphasis on good government reform initiatives. Mark Newman, in "Hazel Brannon Smith and Holmes County, Mississippi, 1936-1964: The Making of a Pulitzer Prize Winner," Journal of Mississippi History (Feb. 9, 1992), 59-87, asserts there was a gradual evolution in her views about race in the 1960s that was driven by Christian and moral values. This evolution resulted in her rejection of segregation and tacit endorsement of integration. In Hazel Brannon Smith, The Female Crusading Scalawag (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), Jeffry Howell shares Newman's interpretation but adds that the opposition Smith encountered in free press issues also contributed to this evolution.
(2) Wendy M. Reed, "Hazel Brannon Smith: A Portrait of the Journalist as a Young Woman" (Ph.D. diss., University of Alabama, 2010), 10.
(3) John De Mott, "Whatever price demanded," Grassroots Editor, Journal of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors 35, 1 (Spring 1994), 4.
(4) Ibid., 11.
(5) Reed, "Hazel Brannon Smith," 108-109.
(6) Quoted in Reed, "Hazel Brannon Smith," 115.
(7) "Hazel Brannon Smith," Current Biography Yearbook 1973 (New York City: H. Wilson Publishing), 384.
(8) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 18.
(9) Ibid., 20.
(10) The Lexington Advertiser, July 1, 1943.
(11) John A. Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2000), 49-52.
(12) Wendy M. Reed, "Hazel Brannon Smith," 31.
(13) Hazel Brannon Smith, "Looking At The Old South Through Hazel Eyes," An American Newspaper Under Pressure (1983), http://alliciapatterson.org/stories/looking-old-south-through-hazel-eyes.
(14) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 49.
(15) Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 76.
(16) The Lexington Advertiser, May 20. 1954; quoted in Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 76.
(17) Reed, "Hazel Brannon Smith," 25.
(18) Hodding Carter, "Woman's War on Bigots," The Everyday Magazine, St. Louis Post Dispatch. Sunday, Nov. 26, 1962.
(19) Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 100.
(20) T. George Harris, "The 11-year Siege of Mississippi Lady Editor, Look Magazine, Nov. 16, 1965, 122.
(21) Sue Ann Wood," She's a Firm Believer in Freedom of the Press," St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 19, 1963.
(22) The Lexington Advertiser, Dec. 23, 1954.
(23) Ibid., July 15, 1954; quoted in Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 81.
(24) The Lexington Advertiser, Nov. 10, 1955.
(25) Garrett Ray, "Hazel Brannon Smith," Grassroots Editor, Journal of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (Winter 1987), 14.
(26) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 117.
(27) Jim Bishop, "Thunder over Dixie," Mansfield (OH) News Journal, Mar. 28, 1956.
(28) Margaret Maree, "Through Hazel Eyes, 1959-1964: A Newspaper Mirrors the Community It Serves," (M.A. thesis, Georgia State University, 1999), 99.
(29) Ibid., 98-192.
(30) Quoted in Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 117.
(31) Quoted in Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 131.
(32) The Lexington Advertiser, Jan. 11, 1962.
(35) The Lexington Advertiser, Sept. 20, 1962. Quoted in Maree, "Through Hazel Eyes," 122.
(36) The Lexington Advertiser, Oct. 4, 1962. Quoted in Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 146.
(37) The Lexington Advertiser, May 16, 1963.
(39) The Lexington Advertiser, June 13, 1963.
(40) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 154.
(42) The Lexington Advertiser, June 16, 1964.
(43) The Lexington Advertiser, July 2, 1964.
(45) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 154.
(46) The Lexington Advertiser, May 7, 1965.
(47) The Lexington Advertiser, Feb. 6, 1967.
(48) Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 221.
(49) John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 416.
(50) The Lexington Advertiser, Jan. 4,1968.
(51) The Lexington Advertiser, Feb. 29, 1968.
(52) Quoted in Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 195.
(53) Ibid., 196.
(54) The Lexington Advertiser, May 1, 1978.
(55) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 195.
(56) http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2009/pdf/HC/HC0083SG.pdf (accessed Apr. 22, 2018).
(57) The Lexington Advertiser, June 6, 1967.
(58) Dick Brogan, compiler, Not Our Kind of Folks? (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1978), 69,
(59) Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith, 201-202.
(60) Cathy Trost, "A Mississippi Editor Finds Crusade Today Different From 60s--Hazel Brannon Smith, Voice for Blacks' Civil Rights Fights for Paper's Survival," Wall Street Journal, May 8, 1984, 2. Available electronically from OCLC.
(61) Bill Minor, "Eulogy for Hazel Brannon Smith," unpublished manuscript, quoted in Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias, 324-325.
Charles Dollar is a retired historian and archivist who resides in Braselton, Georgia.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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