Described as a flamboyant, headstrong, and sassy amalgam of Auntie Mame, Bella Abzug, and Scarlett O’Hara, Hazel Brannon Smith served for four decades as the editor and publisher of Holmes County’s Durant News and Lexington Advertiser. In 1964 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, with the prize committee citing her “steadfast adherence to her editorial duties in the face of great pressure and opposition.” Her front page “Through Hazel Eyes” columns and editorials staunchly opposed the Citizens’ Council, Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, and racial violence during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Born on 5 February 1914 near Gadsden, Alabama, Hazel Brannon attended public schools and began her newspaper career with the Etowah Observer while still attending Gadsden High School. After graduation, she enrolled at the University of Alabama, serving as an editor of the student newspaper before earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1935. The following year, she obtained a three-thousand-dollar loan and purchased the Durant News. After paying off the loan in four years, she acquired the Lexington Advertiser in 1943. She launched an editorial campaign against bootlegging and gambling in 1945, calling for the sheriff’s resignation for failing to enforce the law. In October 1946 she was cited for contempt of court and fined for violating a circuit judge’s gag order when she interviewed a trial witness; the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the contempt conviction in 1947.
Despite skirmishes with local officials, her newspapers prospered, and she participated in the social life of Holmes County, sporting the stylish clothes and hats of a free-spirited southern belle and driving white Cadillac convertibles. She became engaged to a ship purser, Walter Dyer Smith, during a sea cruise in 1949, and they married in Lexington on 21 March 1950. Thereafter, her newspapers listed her as “Hazel Brannon Smith (Mrs. Walter D.)—Editor and Publisher.”
In May 1954 Smith reacted to the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional with a front-page column commenting that the court “may be morally right” even though “we know that it is to the best interest of both races that segregation be maintained in theory and in fact.” In July 1954 Smith reported that Holmes County sheriff Richard F. Byrd had shot a twenty-seven-year-old black man, concluding the story, “No charges have yet been filed against Sheriff Byrd in the shooting.” A week later, a signed editorial, “The Law Should Be for All,” asserted that the sheriff had “violated every concept of justice, decency and right” and called for his resignation. Byrd sued Smith for libel, and in October 1954 the Holmes County Circuit Court awarded the sheriff a ten-thousand-dollar judgment. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the libel conviction in November 1955. Time magazine’s 21 November 1955 edition featured the “good-looking, dark-haired” editor and the libel case in its press section.
Smith’s law-and-order editorials on race prompted reprisals. In January 1956 her husband was fired from his position as administrator of the county hospital. Anonymous circulars appeared in Holmes County declaring her an integrationist after her photograph and comments regarding her stance for “equal justice for all, regardless of race” appeared in the November 1957 issue of Ebony magazine. In January 1959 prominent businessmen and public officials with connections to the Citizens’ Council launched the Holmes County Herald in an effort to silence Smith and drive her newspapers out of business. She called the Herald’s backers “a kind of Gestapo to determine how people should think and act and pressure them into it.”
While the Herald siphoned advertising and subscribers from the Advertiser, Smith continued to editorialize against racial violence, the Citizens’ Council, and the Sovereignty Commission. She called the June 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers a “reprehensible crime against the laws of God and man” and compared the Citizens’ Council and Sovereignty Commission to a homegrown version of the Third Reich and “the Gestapo of Hitler’s Germany.” Smith continued to lose money and piled up substantial debt, mortgaging personal property and borrowing money to publish her newspapers and build a Greek Revival mansion on the outskirts of Lexington. Her husband died in November 1983, and she filed for bankruptcy in 1985, having amassed $250,000 in debt. Banks repossessed her home. The last edition of the Lexington Advertiser appeared on 19 September 1985. In declining health and penniless, Smith returned to Gadsden, where relatives cared for her.
Academic and popular accounts of Hazel Brannon Smith often erroneously described her as a conservative Dixiecrat segregationist who underwent a conversion in the mid-1950s to become a liberal champion of civil rights and martyr to the cause of press freedom. Her advocacy of law and order and denunciation of racial violence coexisted with repeated support for “our Southern traditions and racial segregation.” She vigorously denied being an “integrationist,” writing on 31 October 1957, “I have never, either in print or by spoken word, advocated integration of the races.” On 14 January 1965, seven months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, she reminded readers, “We had never advocated school integration at the time of the 1954 high court decision (nor since for that matter).” Hodding Carter of the Delta Democrat-Times observed in First Person Rural, “The supreme irony is that nowhere outside the Deep South would Hazel Brannon Smith be labeled even a liberal in her racial views. If she must be categorized, then call her a moderate.”
Smith died on 14 May 1994.
- Hodding Carter, First Person Rural (1963)
- Dudley Clendinen, New York Times (31 March 1986)
- Lee Freeland, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (5 January 1986)
- Rich Friedman, Editor and Publisher (24, 31 October 1964)
- Fred Grimm, Chicago Tribune (26 March 1986)
- George Harris, Look (16 November 1965)
- Jeffery B. Howell, Hazel Brannon Smith: The Female Crusading Scalawag (2017)
- Arthur J. Kaul, in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Newspaper Publishers, 1950–1990, ed. Perry J. Ashley (1993)
- Arthur J. Kaul, in The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement, ed. David R. Davies (2001)
- Mark Newman, Journal of Mississippi History (February 1992)
- John A. Whalen, Maverick among the Magnolias: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story (2000)