Alabama born and educated, Hazel Brannon Smith (1914-1994) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964, the first woman to receive the prize for editorial writing. Smith owned and edited four Mississippi weekly newspapers; during the 1950s and 1960s, she spoke out against violence and intimidation and in support of the law, freedom of speech, and improved education through those newspapers. Although Smith had supported segregation for much of her life, she became one of few white editors in the South who forcefully countered the prevailing resistance to the African American civil rights movement, despite lawsuits, threats, violence, and boycotts.
Hazel Brannon Smith Hazel Freeman Brannon was born on February 5, 1914, in Alabama City, near Gadsden in Etowah County. She was the first of five children of Dock Boad Brannon, a wire inspector for Gulf States Steel and an independent electrical contractor, and Georgia Parthenia Freeman Brannon, an active Southern Baptist church member like her husband. Her transformation from a traditional segregationist to a supporter of 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration volunteers was influenced by her upbringing, in which she was taught to love everybody and respect and consider the rights of others. Although they supported segregation, the Brannons displayed civility in their personal dealings with African Americans. Her father greeted African American customers at the front door, contrary to custom. Her mother’s Missionary Society work took her to black churches.
Brannon early on showed the drive and flair that remained her hallmarks along with her strong moral code, independence, and outspokenness. She graduated from Gadsden High School in 1930, at age 16. She then went to work for the Etowah Observer, a weekly newspaper in her home county. She reported news, sold advertising, and decided that she wanted to own a newspaper. In 1932, she entered the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, where she became managing editor of the campus newspaper, the Crimson White. Smith studied under journalism professor Clarence Cason, who taught students to pursue the truth and urged them to stay and work in the South. She graduated in 1935.
Just out of college, at age 22, Brannon obtained a bank loan for a downpayment on the Durant News, located in Holmes County, Mississippi. In 1936, she became its owner, publisher, and editor and made the struggling paper profitable. In 1943, she bought the Lexington Advertiser, in the county seat of Holmes County. In 1956, she bought the Northside Reporter in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Banner County Outlook in Flora, Mississippi. Her early years as a Mississippi newspaper publisher and editor brought financial success and found her mostly in harmony with the whites in predominately black Holmes County. She embraced segregation as best for both races and criticized Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for abandoning the southern Democratic Party‘s white supremacist principles.
Early signs showed that Brannon would go her own journalistic way, however. In April 1943, when few newspapers in the country reported on African Americans unless they were involved in a crime, she featured a story on the front page about an African American civic group in Durant donating money to the local Red Cross. In addition, she urged the Holmes County police and courts in 1945 and 1946 to clamp down on illegal bootlegging and gambling.
In 1949, at age 35, Hazel Brannon met Walter Dyer Smith, a ship’s purser known as Smitty, on an around-the-world cruise. The couple married in March 1950 at the First Baptist Church in Durant.
Hazel B. Smith, c. 1950s In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional. This and a sheriff’s shooting of a retreating African American man in Holmes County marked a watershed for Smith’s views on race. After those events, her growing independence on racial matters and her criticism of violence in general and extremist groups in particular cast her against the Mississippi Citizens’ Councils and their government supporter, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. In Holmes County, the Citizens’ Council painted Smith as an integrationist and urged merchants and subscribers to boycott the Advertiser. In 1956, the council orchestrated the firing of Smith’s husband from his job at Holmes County Hospital and in 1958 organized a competing weekly newspaper, the Holmes County Herald.
In 1960, Smith received the Elijah P. Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism from the International Conference of Weekly Newspaper Editors and Southern Illinois University. The award brought her national attention and sympathy, but in Mississippi Smith found herself the target of violence. In 1960, on Halloween, an eight-foot-tall cross was burned at Smith’s home in Holmes County; Smith blamed local teens influenced by adults’ hate. During Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, when Smith welcomed civil rights workers at her home, an attacker threw a dynamite charge through the window of the Northside Reporter office in Jackson. Two years later, an investigator reported to a congressional hearing that Mississippi Klansmen discussed a proposal to “eliminate” Smith. The same year, her Jackson newspaper office was bombed, Smith received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize and reached the height of her national journalistic acclaim. In granting the award, the Pulitzer committee acknowledged the whole body of her work and her “steadfast adherence to her editorial duties in the face of great pressure and opposition.” Smith was later defeated in two runs for the state Senate in Mississippi, in 1967 and 1971.
Brave in public, in private Smith was bereft when hometown friends abandoned her, and she even considered leaving Mississippi. The Lexington Advertiser survived during the 1950s and 1960s by selling papers outside Holmes County; contracting for print shop business with African American customers; receiving contributions from leading editors around the country and from African Americans in Holmes County; charging fees for her speeches; and refinancing her buildings, farm, and home. The Smiths’ financial situation improved somewhat in the 1970s, and in the 1980s they sold land and borrowed money to build Hazel’s dream house modeled on the mansion Tara in Gone with the Wind.
None of Smith’s newspapers survived her. She sold the Northside Reporter in 1973. Its new owner changed the name to the Capital Reporter and closed that paper in 1981. She discontinued the Banner County Outlook in 1977. In 1982, Walter Smith died after a fall at the couple’s home, and soon after Hazel began to show early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The final edition of the Durant News and Lexington Advertiser, which had merged in the early 1980s, appeared in September 1985, and banks foreclosed on her property. In early 1986, Smith returned to Gadsden, Etowah County, to live with her sister. She had another moment in the national spotlight in 1994 when ABC-TV broadcast an unauthorized, fictionalized movie, A Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story, but Smith, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and cancer, was unable to acknowledge the honor.
Hazel Brannon Smith died on May 15, 1994, at a Cleveland, Tennessee, nursing home where her niece and guardian worked. She is buried alongside family members in Forrest Cemetery in Gadsden. She was inducted into the Communication Hall of Fame at the University of Alabama in 1998. Smith was one of few white southern newspaper editors who dissented from the white majority view on racial matters, supported each other, and modeled journalistic independence to lead when government, business, and churches faltered.
Davies, David R., ed. The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Waldron, Ann. Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1993.
Whalen, John A. Maverick Among The Magnolias: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2000.