There is never a good time for a gun battle to take place in a rural community between officers of the law and an armed man. But in an incident where all law enforcement officers are white–and the 28year-old gunman black–and a posse of over 100 white men is called to apprehend the gunman, a disaster was inevitable.
It happened in Holmes County, Mississippi in January, 1954.
The argument began in a country store in an isolated area not too far from Lexington, seat of Holmes County, where I owned and edited the Lexington Advertiser & Durant News. That area had long been regarded as a place where the “best moonshine in the world” was made. It was illegal, of course, but that did not stop many whites or blacks who “made their own and sold” the remainder to a thirsty public.
The initial argument was reported to be between a white country store owner and his son, and a black man who came into the store with bottles of whiskey sticking out of his pockets. The black man was told by the store owner to get out of his place. Words passed between them. After the argument, the store owner and his son stepped out on the porch where Eddie Noel, standing by his own car, fired on Willie Raymond Dickard, 30, son of the store owner, and fatally injured him with a bullet in the chest. Dickard died an hour later at the hospital. The gunman later said he thought the store owner and his son were coming to “get him”, so he raised his rifle and fired.
Holmes County Sheriff Richard F. Byrd, along with his 65-year-old deputy, John Pat Malone, went out to the area that night to investigate the shooting of young Dickard. During he search, Malone was fatally shot in the head from behind by the fugitive, Eddie Noel, who retreated into the woods. The next day, he returned home. It was then that Joe Stewart, a childhood friend of Noel’s suggested to the sheriff that he try to persuade the gunman to surrender. Stewart was shot to death as he walked through Noel’s door. Noel fled into the woods again.
Before the “war” was over, State Highway Patrolmen were called in to assist in the search for Eddie Noel. More than 100 men volunteered their services to help find the fugitive and place him behind bars. The word had been given that Noel was to be brought in alive. That order was backed up by a $500 cash reward.
Noel managed to evade the posse for nearly three weeks, during which time he shot and seriously injured two more men. In the end, Noel gave himself up to a uniformed Sanitary Officer, mistaking him for a Highway Patrolman. By that time, Noel wanted to go to jail, where he would not be touched by the posse which was combing the woods all around him.
Hunger may have played a role in his decision to turn himself in. He had not had a real meal for about a week, but had managed to steal food from homes in the area where he knew people kept their food. At one point, he dug potatoes out of the ground and cleaned and ate them raw. His own home had been fired on by the posse, catching fire, possibly from a kerosene-burning lamp.
Meanwhile, three Holmes County men were dead, two were in the Holmes County Community Hospital with serious injuries, and hundreds of men had spent hours in an unnerving search, alert and listening for the click of a gun that could end their lives.
The nerves of all citizens in Holmes County were shaken by the Eddie Noel case. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The hospital became a focal point for people trying to learn who had been killed or injured. It was bedlam. Nurses and other female employees, many of whom lived in the area between the hospital and the manhunt area, were afraid to go home, even in daylight. Their families were worried and frightened. A floor of the hospital was made comfortable for the women who did not want to leave.
After Noel gave himself up, he was lodged in the Hinds County Jail in Jackson, Mississippi. Doctors examined Noel and declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial. On this recommendation, Noel was sent to the state mental hospital near Jackson, where he resides today.
In the aftermath of the Eddie Noel case, Holmes County became a different place. For the first time, there was tension and fear between whites and blacks. For the first time, I began to think more about the racial situation in the county, which traditionally had a black-white population ratio of three to one. I felt that it was my responsibility as editor and publisher of the only two newspapers in Holmes County (at that time) to do everything possible to help improve the relations between the races in all of our communities.
The Eddie Noel case made it obvious that whites and blacks who were law-abiding and of good will must learn to live in the same community, and help each other as we would any neighbor. But the South was changing and the tension and fear I noticed after the Eddie Noel manhunt only intensified when the U.S. Supreme Court, in May, 1954, unanimously declared that “separate schools are inherently unequal” and outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
People throughout the South, especially in our state of Mississippi, reacted with worry to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling. In Holmes County, there were many meetings of concerned parents and citizens to discuss the court’s decision. One thing was clear: white parents did not want to enroll their children in desegregated public schools. Few were financially able to enroll their children in private schools, even if enough private schools had been available.
At the same time, there were just as many black parents who did not want their children enrolled in a desegregated school. They were very concerned about the education of their children, but they did not believe that enrollment in the predominately white schools would solve the problem. What they wanted were better books and instructional materials, more special courses, and more qualified teachers to educate their children in modern buildings. They wanted their children to be able to pursue a college education, and to be as good as any of their peers.
Scores of citizens from throughout Holmes County, both white and black, came to my newspaper office to ask what I thought about the situation and to find out what was going to happen to their children. None of them wanted desegregated schools. All of them wanted better schools. More worried than the parents were the black teachers, who were afraid they would lose their jobs.
So many readers and friends contacted me about the situation that I devoted my Page One column, Through Hazel Eyes, to their concerns. I wrote, in part:
This is probably the most complex problem we have ever had to solve in our lifetime. It is going to require the best that is in us to do it. But solve it we must.
Perhaps if we had done as much as we should to improve our Negro schools throughout the South in the past 10 years, we would not have these lawsuits in the courts today.
The unanimous Supreme Court decision may be morally right when it says that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” One does not have to be an educator or a genius to recognize that.
But we know that for practical purposes for both races that the traditional separate educational facilities are desirable in the South and other regions where two or more races live and work together side by side.
Personally, we recognize and are tremendously proud of the rapid progress Southern Negroes are making now in schooling and in jobs. We want them to continue to progress to the point where every family is able to make a good home and a good life for all. I do not see that happening in the immediate future–but we should begin now to implement the educational program and set our goals.
We fear the Supreme Court’s mandate threatens our hopes for the immediate future and perhaps longer. If this proves true, it will hurt everyone, white and black. Progress is threatened when one race tries to force the other to do something–or when one race seeks to prevent another from doing something, whether or not one agrees.
The truth is that we need each other. It works both ways. We must be able to work together and try honestly to understand each other. The present tension and fear should be and can be changed when the best leadership of men and women in both races begins a dialogue and becomes able to talk and to freely exchange ideas and arguments. It is not carved in stone that everyone must be and think alike in order to get along and live in a civilized society.
Unless our leaders in both races do better in the future than they have in the past ten years, we are doomed to oblivion.
Our present situation has all the ingredients necessary for (literally) a bloody revolution–unless the leadership of both races keeps their heads and does better in the future than they have in the past.
All around us we hear people saying “the Supreme Court is not the law of the land.”
And, “They can’t force us to do something we do not want to do of our own free will.”
Well, I am here to tell you that the law of the land is what the U.S. Supreme Court says it is until proven otherwise.
It serves no good purpose to curse the U.S. Supreme Court or any other court which exists to protect your individual rights and freedom. Without the rule of law and our courts we have no rights as an individual or family to work, to live in peace with our neighbors and friends, to be a businessman or women or train for and practice a profession.
In our years in Holmes County — since 1936 — we have regarded ours as a law-abiding society. Anything less is intolerable. Every adult citizen has: the responsibility to keep Holmes County the place we love and live.
When the desegregation decision was handed down, local public school boards throughout every county in the State of Mississippi had a problem. Each board had to decide whether to open the public schools to all children who wished to enroll, or go along with the White Citizen’s Councils who insisted that all public schools in white areas would remain so, and that public schools attended by black students would remain the same. The alternative the councils threatened was to build schools of their own, if necessary, so that white children could attend all-white schools. The schools were built and continue to operate, but the parents today pay the tuition, despite the financial bind in which it places them. The Citizen’s Councils have no more to do with the operation of the schools.
There was only one exception in Holmes County. The City of Durant refused to go along with the Citizen’s Councils. Its Municipal Separate School District was open to all students who lived in the city, white and black. Many white families moved to Durant so their children could attend a desegregated school, which had a ratio of about 55 percent white students to 45 percent black. The Durant school continues to operate successfully, and has been a major factor in enabling the city to increase in population and to attract industry into the community.
©1983 Hazel Brannon Smith
Hazel Brannon Smith, editor of the Lexington (Miss). Advertiser & Durant News, is writing a case study of an American community newspaper under pressure.