Hazel Brannon Smith
Hazel Freeman Brannon Smith (February 4, 1914 in Alabama City, Alabama – May 15, 1994 in Cleveland, Tennessee), was a journalist and publisher, the owner and editor of four weekly newspapers in rural Mississippi, mostly in Holmes County. In 1964 she was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, largely for her writing about the Civil Rights Movement.
A lifelong Baptist, she described herself as "just a little editor in a little spot. A lot of other little editors in a lot of little spots is what helps make this country. It's either going to help protect that freedom that we have, or else it's going to let that freedom slip away by default."
Hazel Freeman Brannon was born in 1914 in Alabama City, Alabama. She attended local schools and was raised a Baptist by her parents. In 1930, she graduated from high school in Gadsden, at the age of 16. She attended the University of Alabama and graduated in 1935 with a B.A. in Journalism.
After graduation, she went to Durant, Mississippi and bought the failing Durant News in Holmes County. This county was bordered on the west by the Yazoo River and was part of the Mississippi Delta. By 1943 she had turned the paper around and bought The Lexington Advertiser in the nearby county seat of Lexington. She edited and published the Lexington Advertiser, the major newspaper in Holmes County, for four decades from 1943 to 1983. In 1956, she acquired the Banner County Outlook (Flora, Mississippi) and the Northside Reporter (Jackson, Mississippi), the latter in the state capital. She married Walter B. Smith, a hospital administrator.
Boycott and Pulitzer Prize
Smith's editorials and her column ("Through Hazel's Eyes") focused on unpopular causes, political corruption, and social injustice in Mississippi. She began to express a progressive position and was known for her factual reporting on the civil rights movement.
In 1959 the White Citizens' Council in Holmes County, one of numerous chapters founded to resist integration, started the Holmes County Herald to compete with her newspaper The Lexington Advertiser. Beginning in 1961, Smith faced an economic boycott on advertising as the White Citizens Council opposed her. As part of their economic retaliation against opponents, they had forced the firing of her husband Walter B. Smith from his position as county hospital administrator.
Among Brannon Smith's supporters was publisher Hodding Carter, Jr. of Greenville, Mississippi, who organized a committee in 1961 to raise money to help her. The Columbia Journalism Review established a fund and blacks in Holmes County also raised $3,000 to help her.
Smith's editorials opposing the activities of the White Citizens' Council and its support of segregation brought her the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1964 for her "steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition." But, the WCC organized a boycott of customers and advertisers of her papers. In the 1970s she sold two of her newspapers; eventually she left the business in 1985.
Smith received awards from the National Federation of Press Women (1946, 1955), the Herrick Award for Editorial Writing (1956), the Mississippi Press Association (1957). She was president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in 1981-82. She died in Cleveland, Tennessee on May 15, 1994.
Smith's 1945-1976 papers are available to researchers and held at the Special Collections department of the Mississippi State University Library.
Smith was one of the subjects in the documentary film An Independent Voice (1973) about small-town newspaper editors. Her life was dramatized in the ABC-TV movie A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story (1994), with Jane Seymour in the title role. The movie aired several weeks before Smith died. It was based on Kathleen Brady's biographical essay about Smith.
- Kathleen Brady, "Hazel Brannon Smith: White Martyr for Civil Rights," in Forgotten Heroes, edited by Susan Ware, New York: The Free Press, 1998.
- John A. Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story, Xlibris (self-published), 2001.
- Jan Whitt, Burning Crosses and Activist Journalism: Hazel Brannon Smith and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, University Press of America, 2010, p.88
- Hazel Brannon Smith: "Bombed, Burned and Boycotted", 1983 Fellow, Alicia Patterson Foundation website
- "This Female Crusading Scalawag" by Bernard L. Stein, Freedom Forum, Summer 2000
- Mississippi Newspapers on Microfilm
- A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story (1994) at the Internet Movie Database