Smith remains a source of inspiration

Published 7:54 pm Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sometimes, it is hard to maintain the fire in the belly a journalist needs to have when pursuing the stories. At those times, this journalist in particular, needs to reach back and remember those who went before her and what they did.

Last week, The Selma Times-Journal’s publisher, Dennis Palmer, who knows my love for history and for reporting, sent me a link about the Mississippi Legislature finally giving honors to Hazel Brannon Smith. I met Smith in her later years at a Mississippi Press Women’s to-do. It was like meeting a movie star. But by that time, the years and the terrorism — yes terrorism — had worn her down a bit.

Nevertheless, Smith remains an icon for me, even in these 15 years since she died. She had the courage to stand alone in the face of very real emotional, physical and financial threats. She had the courage to speak to what she believed was right. It cost her, but she did it.

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Hazel Brannon Smith was not a home-grown Mississippi product. Instead, she grew up in Gadsden and graduated from the University of Alabama. She did not move to Mississippi as a firebrand for civil rights in 1935. Instead, many photos found her in the bosom of the elite in Lexington, Miss., supporting the segregationist Dixiecrats in 1948, who aligned against the Democratic Party in opposition to Harry Truman’s move to desegregate the armed forces. In fact, she wrote at the time that, “the South and America are a white man’s country.”

But Smith also believed in justice, which won out over her advocacy of racial segregation when she took law enforcement officers to task for turning their heads at illegal gambling and bootlegging. Her reporting resulted in 64 people indicted for organized criminal activity. And, shortly after, she was convicted of contempt of court for writing the story of a black woman who gave evidence in the trial of five white men accused of killing her husband. That story overturned the conviction after it was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In the mid-1950s she called on the sheriff of Holmes County, Miss. to resign after he shot a black man in the leg after ordering the man to leave a roadside cafe. The sheriff sued Smith’s paper and won $10,000, but Smith successfully appealed the decision. She refused to join the Holmes County Citizens’ Council that called on whites to boycott anyone who challenged racial discrimination. She continued to report white on black crimes. The Citizens’ Council had her husband fired from his job, pressured businesses not to advertise in her newspaper and even organized a rival paper. Smith continued to attack the council.

Later, a group of teenagers burned a cross in her yard. She did not quit writing. She lost almost everything she had and friends had to help her out, but she did not quit writing.

She won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary on the Citizens Council, but it is not the award — or the oh so many other accolades Smith gained during her lifetime that made me an admirer. It was her passion for truth. She saw evil, recognized what damage it could do and labeled it for others to see.

She lost a good deal — friends, family, social standing, money. But she maintained integrity. That kind of standing up to pressure from all sides puts fire in my belly. We need more journalists like this woman.