Hazel Brannon Smith

Hazel Brannon Smith died May 15, 1994, at the age of 80.

The cliché is true: Courage demands a price. For Hazel Brannon Smith, the price of speaking the truth has been high - perhaps unbearably high.

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors honored the Mississippi editor this year by awarding a scholarship in her honor to enable a young editor to attend the annual summer conference. Tragically, her failing memory may prevent her from being aware of the honor.

When a New Mexico couple received the first Hazel Brannon Smith award this year, old timers in ISWNE may have found the ceremony surprising.

Surprising because Landon Wills, ISWNE historian, began by reviewing the career of the editor for whom the award is named. First generation ISWNE editors needed no introduction to the woman whom Howard R. Long, ISWNE founder, called the "Great Lady of the Press."

The gracious Deep South aristocrat showed a generation of small town editors the meaning of courage. Her editorials and columns in the Lexington (Miss.) Advertiser reflected the personal and community traumas of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Long presented her with Southern Illinois University's Lovejoy award for courage in journalism. Her direct, passionate writing won ISWNE's Golden Quill award in 1963. The following year, she received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

All of that seems to be a very long time ago. In the years since the high tide of the civil rights movement, Hazel Smith has paid a price because she spoke out for justice. The most painful price of all may be alienation from the people and places she has loved the most.

Most of the weekly newspaper editors attending the award ceremony at the ISWNE conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in July had never met Hazel Brannon Smith. Many, including the award recipients, Guy and Marcia Wood of the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle, had never heard of her. So Landon Wills' re introduction was needed.

Long time ISWNE members recalled that in the mid 1950s, her report on the local sheriff's shooting of a black man first set the community against her. The sheriff won a libel suit he filed against her, but the state supreme court overturned the judgment.

To the surprise of the local establishment, she battled the White Citizens Council formed in 1954. The resulting advertising boycott lasted 18 years. Her husband, administrator of the local hospital, lost his job because of her stand.

This history was familiar to a few longtime friends at the ISWNE banquet. But even they had been surprised by a profile written last year by Fred Grimm of the Miami Herald's Atlanta bureau. Grimm's story began, "Civil rights crusader fights final battle alone and forgotten."

Hazel's iron will - so deceptively hidden in the genteel Southern lady - kept her newspaper going through threats, abuse and advertising boycotts in the 1960s. Grimm's article revealed that sheer will could not help her through the personal and financial disasters that followed.

She was defeated in a race for the state senate. "Smitty," her beloved husband and supporter, died in an accident. The heavily mortgaged newspaper was closed, and the bank foreclosed on her southern mansion; Hazel's financial resources are gone. She suffers from serious memory losses, possibly Alzheimer's disease.

She lives with her sister and her sister's husband in the Gadsden, Alabama, home where both women grew up.

"Hazel listens to the news on television, and to programs like ‘Meet the Press' on Sundays," her sister, Mrs. Bonnie Geer, reported.

"She still makes her notes, as if she is gathering statistics and facts to do an editorial or a column, just as I've seen her do all her life. She reads the newspaper, and she underscores things that she wants to make a note of to use in the future."

Some days Hazel will come into the kitchen as Mrs. Geer prepares dinner. "She will tell me how tired she is, and I'll ask her why. She says she has been doing her column or writing a feature story or an editorial."

Although Hazel still has a sense of humor, she does not talk as much as she used to, her sister said. That would sadden editors who remember sharing her stories at ISWNE summer conferences.

One legendary panel discussion ran late into the night at the 1975 conference. Hazel, joining other recipients of the Lovejoy award, told her story - a mix of pride, humor and deep sadness, but without bitterness. Landon Wills' tape recorder captured her attractive drawl and her laughter.

"I was very much a part of the establishment then," she recalled. "In fact, I was an honorary member of the Rotary Club. They rarely did anything in the community that they didn't come in and ask my advice."

The chairman of the hospital board visited her in 1954 to tell her of plans to form a White Citizens Council, implying that there should be no publicity. He was shocked when she opposed the formation of the council.

Rick Friedman, a former ISWNE president and longtime friend, and Hugh Morgan, another old friend who now teaches journalism at Miami University of Ohio, emphasize that Hazel Brannon Smith was a Southerner, born and bred.

"When she reported on that shooting in 1954, it wasn't because she thought segregation was wrong," Friedman said. "She started to see that as a journalist, she had to report on this. She saw this not as a pro integrationist, but as a humanist."

"She just asked for justice and was pretty surprised when people didn't see it that way," Morgan said. "But she stuck to her guns, and that's where she is heroic."

"All I did was to try to print the truth," the editor said in 1975. "That started the whole thing."

As a result, her husband lost his job, making the Smiths dependent on the newspaper for a living. Next came the ad boycott. Then merchants started a competing paper.

"In these 21 years, we have run up an indebtedness of well over $400,000," she told the editors in 1975. "I have my own name on over $350,000 worth of paper. I won't live long enough to pay it all back."

During the boycott, "All we had was a paper full of public service ads," she said. "Boy, did we give public service! Smoky the Bear, a church page - we were the most service minded newspaper in the state of Mississippi."

The Smiths had no children; this proved that "the Lord knew what he was doing," Hazel said.

"If I'd had children I couldn't have done this," she explained. "I could take it for myself, and Smitty could take it too. But if we'd had children, they would have had to be our first consideration, and we simply would have sold out and left, and that would be the end of that - and we'd be a lot better off financially!"

Even more than the financial blows and the fear that the White Citizens Council inspired, she was hurt by being ostracized by her friends in Lexington. She told editors at the 1975 conference that she felt like a leper.

"She could handle the physical problem, the threats," said Friedman. "But the mental problem, having your friends not talk to you, that was the toughest part to deal with."

Hugh Morgan recalled that Hazel compared herself to someone in the Soviet Union who has been made into a "nonperson" and sent into exile. "She felt she was a non person," he said. "Some of her biggest enemies were (people who had been) her friends; she was an integral part of the white establishment of Holmes County."

In later years, she never went to her office to work, Morgan said. "She would work at home, and her husband would take the stuff down to the paper. In the last few years, she didn't do a lot of the reporting. But she still hung on. The whole thing was very, very emotional."

Grimm's 1986 profile noted that Hazel also found herself separated from the new generation of black leaders in Holmes County, including some who had helped bring pressure on merchants to end the earlier boycott. They no longer needed whites to speak for them.

"At the end, she was all alone," Friedman said. He believes that the emotional strain contributed to her declining health. "With the kind of stress and pain and everything else and just exhaustion, it couldn't have helped," he said.

Hazel Brannon Smith's estrangement from the people she loved had to cause her great pain. As early as 1966, Hazel wrote an editorial titled, "Mississippians Break My Heart."

"All my adult life - which has been spent in Mississippi - I have thought Mississippi is a wonderful place and that Mississippians are a special kind of people," she wrote. "For me there's no other place in the world - I want no other place.

"It breaks my heart to be faced with the indisputable fact that there are sadistic, morally depraved Mississippians who kill, torture, and maim other Mississippians; wicked Mississippians who bomb homes and churches; sick Mississippians who have added an unbearable burden of fear and terror to an already overburdened state."

Yet she never publicly expressed doubts about the course that set her apart from people she loved. After winning the Pulitzer Prize, she wrote, "We have given it all we have, nearly 10 years of our lives, loss of financial security, and a big mortgage. We would do the same thing over, if necessary."

"I'm not sorry," she concluded in her talk to ISWNE editors in 1975. "I wasn't trying to set the world on fire, but I knew that I was doing what needed to be done in my county at that time, and that I was the only person that could do it.

"I wasn't fighting for my rights, because I had my rights. They couldn't take my rights. I'd have just taken them to court and beat 'em in court. But everybody can't do that. There's too many other little people that can't do this. And so, we as editors have to do this ourselves.

"This is the only way that this country's going to work."

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