(Editor’s note: Hazel Brannon Smith won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for her editorials).
LEXINGTON, Miss.–The years of trouble began in 1954.
A prominent local man walked into my newspaper office one hot day in July and asked to talk to me privately. I owned and edited The Lexington Advertiser, the only newspaper in Lexington, a town of 2,500 that was 55 miles north of Jackson. He told me that a meeting was going to be held that night at the Lexington Elementary School. I naturally assumed that he wanted publicity for the meeting, but he said only men would be allowed to attend. He said he wanted my “cooperation” with something called a “Citizens’ Council,” to be organized that night. The U.S. Supreme Court had just weeks before handed down its landmark decision against school segregation. The Citizens’ Council, he said, would work to maintain segregation in the public schools using legal, nonviolent tactics.
“If a Nigra won’t go along with our thinking on what’s best for the community as a whole,” the man told me, “he’ll simply have his credit cut off.”
“What do you think the Negroes are going to think,” I asked, “when they hear that the white men are organizing?”
“Well, it might be a good thing for them to be a little scared,” he replied.
“No,” I said, “It’s not a good thing for anyone to be a little scared. 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 are proposing to do is take away the freedom of all the people in this community.”
Despite my protests, the meeting was a success. The Holmes County Citizens’ Council, which soon signed up most of the white men in the county, joined the growing white Citizens’ movement in Mississippi. Members donated money to fund private, white-only schools in the county. The Council said it would use economic sanctions against any blacks who tried to break the color barriers in the state, and if any whites should oppose the Council’s objectives it proposed to use social and political pressures. Their slogan seemed to be: “You are for us or against us. There is no middle ground.”
I was opposed to the Council from the start, and I spoke out against it in my two weekly newspapers. For the first time, we had the lawless element and the so-called elite of the community involved in one organization with a common cause. The idea was that “we” would present a solid, united stand. I dissented by presuming to say that the truth had to be printed. As a result, I became one of the Council’s chief targets.
The Councils said that if we buried our heads in the sand long enough, the problem would go away. It was the technique of the big lie, like Hitler: tell it often enough and everybody will believe it. It finally got to the point where bank presidents and leading physicians were afraid to speak their honest opinions, because of this monster among us.
Over the next 15 years, as the Councils’ influence spread to the highest offices in the state, my newspapers were boycotted, bombed and burned, a new newspaper was organized in Lexington to put me out of business, my life was threatened, and my husband lost his job as county hospital administrator–all because of pressure brought by this professional hate-peddling organization.
In the beginning, delegations of Council members went around to all stores that advertised with me in Lexington and tried to influence those merchants to cancel their business. Each Monday morning when the Advertiser came out, Council members would canvas the town in groups of two. They would walk into a store and confront the owner with, “We see you had another ad in Hazel’s paper this week.” These were people who knew each other, who attended the same church or were members of the same Rotary club. The merchants wanted to retain their local business, both black and white. For three years, most resisted the boycott.
Then a small group of die-hard segregationists began a campaign to find someone who would come to Lexington and start a newspaper: “A paper that will think like we do,” they told some local businessmen. One paper was started in a community some miles from Lexington. It published just long enough to be awarded a year’s contract to print the proceedings of the monthly county board of supervisors meetings. I continued to publish the monthly proceedings without pay because I did not want anyone to be forced to subscribe to a newspaper just to keep up with the supervisors.
It was during this time that I bought two more small weekly papers in other parts of the state. I had made up my mind that I was going to live in Mississippi the rest of my life–and if Holmes County should get so bad that I couldn’t stand it, then I would have two other papers to keep me busy.
One night about 9 o’clock, my husband, Walter B. Smith, and I were finishing that week’s edition of one of our newly acquired newspapers in suburban Jackson. Smitty had been fired as administrator of the local county hospital, despite the petitions of the entire medical staff. Suddenly, the telephone rang. It was my shop foreman at the Advertiser. It turned out that Council members in Lexington had decided to form a corporation and start publishing a new newspaper in a community that could barely support the one it already had. They called it the Holmes County Herald and they offered my foreman the job of editor. He was only the first of many editors hired by the Herald, which was governed by a board whose principals were Council members–including two prominent state representatives–bent on maintaining forever an entirely white school system. The new newspaper was organized for one purpose–to put me out of business–principally because the Council could not control my news and editorial policies.
My life had always been comfortable in Lexington. My two papers in Holmes County were paid for. I wore good clothes, and drove a Cadillac convertible. I went to Europe on vacation for four months and had more money in my bank account when I returned than I did when I left. But the boycott and the hate campaign wore my business down. The Council-backed newspaper depleted my advertising revenues, and I fell into deep debt. I began mortgaging my property, and cut my workforce by two-thirds.
But with the Councils growing more vicious and dictatorial, and becoming more influential in the state with each passing year, I could not abandon my battle. In the early 1960’s, I wrote in an editorial in The Advertiser:
We cannot hold down more than 42 percent of our entire state population without staying down ourselves–and all intelligent people know it.
This greatest of nations was not built by men who were afraid. The Magnolia State was not carved out of a wilderness by the fearful and timid. And we cannot live and truly progress in today’s atmosphere of fear–an atmosphere engendered by the Citizens’ Council and its professional agitators who apparently are now running our state and setting its policies, even to the point of intimidating the Legislature.
If we lose our personal freedom, what does it matter what our masters call themselves?
Gestapo rule in Mississippi? It is nearer than we think.
Hate handbills were distributed against me. “Her Communist holiday is just about over,” one said. Vandals tore up my lawn furniture one night. Another night, after returning home from a 4-H Club dinner, I was drinking coffee in the kitchen when I heard what sounded like a firecracker. I ran to the window. It looked like my magnolia tree was on fire in the front yard. But it was a cross burning–set by local high school boys who were reacting to what they heard at home about me.
“This is a world of change,” I wrote in an editorial. “The old way 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 FBI told my husband they had information that a segregationist group was “going to kill me.” Shortly after I appeared on the nationally televised “Today” show with two black Democrats who were prominent in national politics, one of my newspapers was firebombed. The darkroom and some photographic equipment was destroyed. A group called “Americans For the Preservation of the White Race” claimed responsibility.
Some weeks later, a fire started in the press room of the Advertiser, causing minor damage. State fire officials determined that it was arson, but the guilty party could never be found. Several hundred local people were drawn to the pre-dawn fire scene. During the entire time I was there, not one person came up to say they were sorry about my loss.
The era of terror and violence continued through the 1960’s, but the South was changing. When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi in 1963, I wrote: “…Far from killing the freedom movement in Mississippi, the perpetrator of the crime only made it certain that interest will be increased tenfold. New leaders will arrive to take Evers’ place-and they will not be as moderate in their views, or as patient, reasonable, and understanding of the white man’s position and views as was our friend, Medgar. God help us when the Negro starts hating in Mississippi.”
The Holmes County Herald was bought out by an independent newspaperman in 1970, and that was the end of the Council’s heavy-handed reign. Now my problems are purely monetary because of the economic hardness of these times. Holmes County is poor. Farming is the main way of making a living. There is no way that two newspapers in Lexington can make a good living.
But the circle is now complete. One of the high school boys who participated in the cross burning on my lawn recently came back to ask my pardon. He is now head of a large government agency in Mississippi. And when we buried my husband Smitty, who died in an accidental fall, our old enemies were there to express their sorrow at his death.
©1984 Hazel Brannon Smith
Hazel Brannon Smith, editor of the Lexington, Miss., Advertiser & Durant News, concludes her study of an American community newspaper under pressure.