Smith, Hazel Brannon (1914–1994)
Smith, Hazel Brannon (1914–1994)
White Southern newspaper owner and editor, one of the few journalists in her region to oppose racism during early desegregation efforts, who was the first woman editor to win a Pulitzer Prize. Name variations: Hazel Brannon. Born on February 4, 1914, in Gadsden, Alabama; died on May 14, 1994, in Cleveland, Tennessee; daughter of Doc Boad Brannon (an electrical contractor) and Georgia Parthenia Brannon; graduated from high school in Gadsden; University of Alabama, B.A. in journalism, 1935; married Walter Dyer Smith, in 1950; no children.
Following high school graduation, became a reporter and then advertising representative for the Etowah Observor (1930–32); was managing editor of the University of Alabama student newspaper, Crimson-White (1932–33); purchased her first newspaper in Mississippi, the Durant News (1936); bought the Lexington Advertiser (1943), and later owned papers in towns of Flora and Jackson; campaigned editorially against corruption in her local Holmes County, and against racist economic, political and legal policies in the county and state, which made her a target of financial and personal harassment; honored for her editorial writing by the National Federation of Press Women (1948, 1955); received award of the Mississippi Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (1948); named an "admired southern integrationist" by Ebony magazine (1954); received the Herrick Award of the National Editorial Association (1956); received Fund for the Republic citation and Mississippi Press Association Convention commendation (1957); 27th Annual Matrix Table at Marquette University, sponsored by Theta Sigma Phi (1958); granted Elijah Lovejoy Award from Southern Illinois University (1960) and Golden Quill Editorial Award from International Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors (1963); awarded Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing (1964); was the subject of the television movie "A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story," starring Jane Seymour in the title role (1994).
When Hazel Brannon Smith was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1964, she noted that she had never intended to be a leader in the fight for integration in Mississippi, but that the segregationist White Citizens Council had thrust her into the role. "I believe in obeying the law," she said, "and they were set on disobeying it."
Born Hazel Brannon on February 4, 1914, in the upcountry Alabama town of Gadsden, she was the first child of Doc Boad Brannon, an electrical contractor, and Georgia Parthenia Brannon ; eventually, she would have four sisters and brothers. Too young to go to college when she finished high school at age 16, Hazel went to work at the Etowah Observor, writing "personals," short items on church suppers, weddings, teas, and other social events involving families in the area, for which she was paid five cents an inch.
The editor liked her work so much that he assigned her to front-page news, then changed her duties again after a banker observed that she was "wasted on news and ought to sell advertising." Her success at ad sales led the paper to put her on salary instead of commission to save itself money; she also kept the paper's books. After two years at the Observor, Smith knew what she wanted: her own newspaper.
In 1932, at age 18, she entered the University of Alabama and became managing editor of the school newspaper in her freshman year. She maintained good grades and also enjoyed an active social life that included her selection as a beauty queen of the Delta Zeta sorority. Taking to heart the counsel of her favorite professor, who encouraged his bright students to remain in the South, she reached the conviction that "the South is my home and my love, and I don't ever expect to leave it."
After graduating in 1935, Smith began looking around for an economically troubled newspaper to buy. Over in Holmes County, Mississippi, the Durant News looked like a good prospect, since it had had three editors in 13 months, and Hazel was able to make the purchase with a $3,000 loan. Townspeople in that region of flatlands and hills began to make bets on how long she would last, with no one wagering even six months. In a short time, however, the paper's circulation of 600 had risen to 1,400.
Mississippi newspaper editor Hodding Carter, who met Smith soon after she bought theNews, once described Holmes County as combining an "arrogant feudalism" with "provincial suspicion, racial and religious bigotry and [a] predilection for violence." It was into this environment that Smith, at age 21, brought her dedication to observance of the law and her enthusiasm for reporting the truth.
My interest has been to print the truth and protect and defend the freedom of all Mississippians.
—Hazel Brannon Smith
Working the long hard hours typical of most small-newspaper owners, she honed her publishing skills while also learning the printing trade. In addition to covering the routine local news of births, deaths, marriages, arrests and local government activity, she wrote a regular editorial column, "Through Hazel Eyes," which called attention to issues people sometimes preferred to ignore. One favored establishing a public health clinic to treat venereal disease, a subject rarely discussed in public at the time. While seeing the son of a well-known family, Hazel was told by her date, "Ladies just don't talk about venereal disease," to which she replied, "Well, I ain't no lady. I'm a newspaper woman."
In four years, advertising sales and outside printing jobs had paid for the Durant paper. In 1943, Brannon bought the Lexington Advertiser, which paid for itself in three years. She later bought small papers in Flora and another nearby town, all of which were printed on the press in Lexington.
Smith had the small-town publisher's belief in community and the importance of a newspaper in supporting a good quality of life for local residents. In one instance, when a firm was proposing to build a factory in Lexington, she flew north to inspect the company and its executives, and returned to persuade her readers to vote for the bond issue that would finance the plant.
In the early years of her ownership, her editorials dealt often with the misuse of public power and called for human respect and dignity for all persons, including African-Americans; she campaigned through her column against gambling and liquor interests and corrupt local politicians. In 1946, her editorial coverage led to the indictments of 64 public officials for their misdoings. That same year, when five white men were indicted for the whipping death of a black man, Smith printed an interview with the victim's widow. While the five defendants were not convicted, Hazel was cited for contempt of court for interviewing a witness. She was given a 15-day jail sentence, a $50 fine, and an admonition from the judge: "I realize you are putting on a great campaign for law and order, but if you read history, you will see that the only Perfect Being did not make much of a hit with His reform." The jail sentence was remanded to a two-year suspension "under good behavior," which the young editor appealed to the state supreme court, where the ruling was eventually in her favor.
In 1948, Smith was honored with the top award of the National Federation of Press Women for her editorial condemning a jury which had acquitted an alleged bootlegger who later killed another man in an auto crash. That same year, she received a certificate of merit from the Mississippi Association of Teachers in Colored Schools.
A year later, with her business in small newspapers solidly established, 35-year-old Hazel decided to take a break by going on a world cruise. On board ship, she met the ship's purser, Walter Dyer Smith, from Philadelphia. Hazel and Smitty fell in love and were married in 1950.
More a pragmatist than an idealist, Hazel Brannon Smith was elected twice as a Mississippi delegate to the Democratic National Convention along with states' rights politicians. In press circles, she said, "A crusading editor is one who goes out and looks for the wrongs of the world. I just try to take care of things as they come up. I try to make them a little better." In fact, however, attempts to make things better in Holmes County would lead her directly into the crusade for civil rights that was soon to dominate her region.
From 1951 to 1954, Smith turned her attention to political and legal corruption in Holmes County. Her outspoken editorial campaigns were aimed particularly against Sheriff Richard F. Byrd whose connections to special interests made him indifferent to local illegalities. Smith's writings earned her enemies among some of the more wealthy and powerful local citizens.
In 1954, following the handing down by the U.S. Supreme Court of its famed Brown v. Board of Education decision, which heralded the end of officially accepted racial discrimination in public schools, Smith was visited in her office by a leading Lexington citizen. He brought news of plans by local white residents to organize against the ordered desegregation, and was there to test whether the group could count on Smith's "cooperation." Made aware of the intention of the newly formed White Citizens Council to intimidate blacks, she challenged him. "[I]t's not a good thing for anyone to be a little scared," said Smith. "People can't live under fear, and it will end up with all of us scared, and it will be a big scare. What you're proposing to do is take away the freedom of all the people in this community."
A factor in the "big scare" that subsequently consumed Holmes County was Smith's coverage of Sheriff Byrd's controversial shooting of Henry Randle, an African-American who apparently had done no wrong. In her editorial reprimand, she wrote:
[T]he laws in America are for everyone—rich and poor, strong and weak, black and white. The vast majority of Holmes County people are not rednecks who look with favor on the abuse of people because their skins are black. [Byrd] has violated every concept of justice, decency and right. He is not fit to occupy office.
When Byrd sued Smith for libel, she was found guilty by the county court which assigned an award of $10,000 in damages. Smith appealed the verdict, while the campaign to intimidate her into silence broadened; her refusal to condemn federal and state officials for any moderate or supportive positions on integration had by that time incurred the wrath of many whites found throughout Holmes County. Later in the year, she reported the shooting and wounding of a black schoolteacher who had complained to a white man about the damage he did to her yard while turning his car around. Smith was approached by members of the White Citizens Council and others who tried to get her to kill the story, but she refused. The trespasser was never arrested, but both the teacher, a 20-year veteran, and her husband were fired from their jobs. Meanwhile, the White Citizens Council condemned Smith for favoring integration and criticized her acceptance of national awards which they alleged were sponsored by "Communist-infiltrated organizations."
In 1962, she would write:
Worrying unduly about the so-called 'communist menace' in Mississippi is something like a minister orating on the sins of the people in Timbuktu when his own congregation sits uneasily in skid row. There are many things we fear more than communism in Mississippi—and chief among them is a fascist-type home grown organization which already is more of a threat to freedom-loving people in Mississippi than the communists will ever be. We refer specifically to the White Citizens' Councils of Mississippi which too often in too many cases have adopted and followed methods that would make a communist green with envy.
In November 1955, after Byrd's libel decision against Smith was reversed by the Mississippi supreme court, she told Time magazine, "I don't regard this as a personal victory, but rather as a victory for the people's right to know." The editorial that had generated the suit meanwhile brought Smith more awards, including the highest honor of the National Federation of Press Women for the second time. The National Editorial Association presented her with its Herrick Award "for editorial writing, embracing the highest type of American principles and ideals," and in 1957, the Fund for the Republic recognized Smith as "an American whose actions have made an unusual contribution to advancing the principles of freedom and justice and the Bill of Rights." At the Mississippi Press Association convention that year, a unanimous vote commended "Mrs. Hazel Smith, editor of the Lexington Advertiser and the Durant News for her epochal fight in the interest of freedom of the press."
But the repercussions for her actions had barely begun. In January 1956, Holmes County hospital trustees, who were dominated by members of the White Citizens Council, arranged for the firing of Walter Smith from his position as hospital administrator, although the medical staff asked unanimously for his reinstatement. One trustee stated on the record that it was not a move against Smitty himself but because "his wife [had] become a controversial person." The following day, Smitty became a newspaperman and, according to Hazel, "a damn good one."
When legal intimidation did not deter Smith's position, the White Citizens Council organized an advertising boycott. Although most merchants held out for some three years, and Smith discovered that many who did not agree with her positions were supporters of a free press, advertising in her papers eventually dropped 50%. Vandalism at their home and a bombing at one of the newspaper offices were also used against the Smiths, as well as hate handbills, gossip and name-calling. In one widely told account that is also a telling example of the tenor of the times, the Smiths were "rumored" to have entertained Dr. Arenia Mallory , the president of the all-black Saints Junior College in Lexington. Hazel was urged to print a denial of this, which she vehemently refused to do. During this period, Smith became the printer for the Mississippi Free Press, a civil-rights newspaper, and sat on a local advisory committee of the Civil Rights Commission.
Dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of its threats, the White Citizens Council founded a rival newspaper in 1958, subsidized by wealthy council members. Lack of advertising was by this time draining Smith's papers financially, although readership continued at previous levels. Increased national recognition, through the honor of a Matrix Table bestowed by Marquette University's Theta Sigma Phi, merely increased the financial stress.
In 1960, a cross was burned on the Smiths' lawn, signifying the sentiments of local groups against her. Rather than be browbeaten, according to Hodding Carter, "Hazel herself descended upon them as the cross burned and … removed the license tag from their car so that proof of ownership … could be made." That year, Smith was honored with the Elijah Lovejoy Award "for demonstrating the ability to perform under great stress … her role as editor of the community's newspapers so effectively as to win the approval and support, in growing numbers, of the right thinking people of her town and county."
In 1961, in spite of their severe financial losses, the Smiths built a modern printing plant in Lexington where all their papers were printed, including the Mississippi Free Press, arousing further threats and defamation. In December, the Smiths and others, including civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, were observed meeting in the Jackson offices of the Free Press by segregationists. Unable to verify their suspicions because an evergreen tree protruding from the trunk of the Smiths' car obscured its license plate, the snoopers nevertheless signed an affidavit concerning their observations. The White Citizens Council distributed their findings to news media, legislators and white citizens of Holmes County. A state senator announced that although Hazel Brannon Smith was no longer respected but "shrewd and scheming," she would not be prosecuted. He failed to mention the crime she might have committed. The following spring, the state legislature passed a "reprisal law" regarding publication of official business proceedings of Holmes County towns; a state representative went on record as saying that he understood the law "concerned a woman editor who has been writing things which don't go along with the feelings in the community," but otherwise the insinuations remained vague.
Smith meanwhile continued to call attention to racial injustices. On May 16, 1963, her editorial took a Holmes County deputy sheriff to task for arresting a 58-year-old African-American farmer, Hartman Turnbow, on the charge of firebombing his own home. The only testimony at the preliminary hearing had come from the deputy, and that testimony had included hearsay evidence. For this commentary, Smith received the Golden Quill Editorial Award from the International Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors.
In 1964, Smith became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing; her column on the firebombing had been among the entries she had submitted. The Pulitzer committee noted Smith's "steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition," and Newsweek magazine reported that "[s]everal Southerners were not particularly happy over the selection."
In the summer of 1964, which has become known as Freedom Summer in civil-rights history, hundreds of college students and other civilrights workers came south to Mississippi to join a campaign for registering African-American citizens to vote. In the city of Jackson, both the morning and afternoon papers were owned by the Hederman family, vigorous opponents of desegregation. Smith's Northside Reporter was the only newspaper to give alternative views of the registration campaign. That summer, the offices of the Reporter were bombed.
Prior to her targeting by racists, Smith had had a debt-free, profitable business in Holmes County, and the goodwill of her community. By 1965, after ten years of an advertising boycott, she was $100,000 in debt and had mortgaged her property to keep the papers going. Her staff had shrunk from fifteen to five. To raise funds, she went on the lecture circuit, receiving from $300 to $1,000 per speech. Help also came from the Hazel Brannon Smith Fund established at the Columbia Journalism Review of the University of Missouri, and at Saints Junior College in Lexington, Smith was presented with $2,852 on Editor's Appreciation Day, while the school's President Mallory offered "just a suggestion" that African-Americans might give their business only to area merchants who advertised in Smith's paper.
Through the following years of change in civil-rights laws and society's behavior and attitudes, Hazel Brannon Smith continued to publish the Lexington Advertiser. Her husband died in 1982, and Smith finally felt forced to sell the Advertiser in 1985 due to her own ill health and financial strain. Treated eventually for Alzheimer's disease, she moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1988, to be cared for by her niece. On April 17, 1994, a television movie about her career, titled "A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story" and starring Jane Seymour , was broadcast by the ABC network. The program received criticism from family members because Smith, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was financially destitute, received none of the show's proceeds. She died a few weeks later, on May 14, and was buried in her hometown of Gadsden, Alabama.
Her legacy to journalistic and civil-rights history might best be summed up by her comments upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize:
All we have done here is try to meet honestly the issues as they arose. We did not ask for, nor run from this fight. … But we have given it all we have, … years of our lives, loss of financial security and a big mortgage. We would do the same thing over, if necessary.
"Appreciation Day," in Newsweek. December 13, 1965, p. 70.
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Casey, Maura. "Pulitzer winner Hazel B. Smith: penniless heroine," in The Day [New London, CT]. June 5, 1994.
"Former Lexington editor dies in local nursing home," in Cleveland [Tennessee] Daily Banner. May 16, 1994.
Harris, T. George. "The 11-year siege of Mississippi's lady editor," in Look. November 16, 1965.
"The Last Word," in Time. November 21, 1955, p. 75.
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Obituary. Cleveland [Tennessee] Daily Banner. May 16, 1994.
Obituary. Los Angeles Times. May 16, 1994, Sec. A.
"Prize and Prejudice," in Newsweek. May 18, 1964, p. 76.
Sallis, Charles, and J.Q. Adams. "Desegregation in Jackson, Mississippi," in Southern Businessmen and Desegregation. Edited by Elizabeth Jacoway and David R. Colburn. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Smith, Hazel Brannon. "Arrest of Bombing Victim is Grave Disservice," in Pulitzer Prize Editorials: America's Best Editorial Writing, 1917–1979. Edited by David W. Sloan. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1980 (first published in Lexington Advertiser. May 16, 1963).
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Streitmatter, Rodger. Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists who Changed History. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
"A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story" (television movie), starring Jane Seymour, produced by Mitch Engel and Edgar J. Scherick Associates, directed by James Keach, first aired on ABC on April 17, 1994.
Margaret L. Meggs , independent scholar on women's and disability issues, Havre, Montana