Thursday, March 22, 2018

Through Hazel's Eyes:

   As a child, I had lots of female heroes. They lived in the biography section of the library. Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, Jane Addams. These women were daring and brave, breaking the female norms of their day. They had something else in common.

   By the time I was born, they were all long dead.

   I didn't realize as a pre-teen in 1960's Mississippi that I lived within fifty miles of a woman who would become one of my adult heroes.

    When I did school visits in connection with Yankee Girl, it was a twenty minutes of Civil Rights history.  Lynchings, bombings, segregation, and of course, the Ku Klux Klan. After all that, the first question during Q & A was always, "Weren't there any good white Mississippians? Did anyone stand up for the black people?"

   The first time I was asked, I hemmed and hawed and said I was sure there were, but I couldn't think of any.  I explained how dangerous it was for white people to take a stand. People kept their "different" views to themselves.

   By the next school visit, I had thought of someone. Yes, I did know a good and brave white woman (Alabamian by birth, but who lived in Mississippi).  Her name was Hazel Brannon Smith, a woman who was a journalist (a female journalist!), publisher, owner and editor of four small newspapers, mostly in Holmes County, Mississippi.  In 1964, she also became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.
Hazel Brannon Smith in her newsroom, circa 1965

    I first heard of her through the four-page weekly, The Northside Reporter, my parents subscribed to. Each week there was an editorial column called "Through Hazel Eyes" written by Hazel Brannon Smith. I had never encountered a female journalist who wasn't a "society writer," relegated to what used to be called "The Women's Section": weddings, engagements, debutant balls, soirees and "ladies' club "meetings. This Hazel lady wrote about important things--like rights for black people, voter's rights, police brutality. She felt the same way about these events that my parents did: horrified. It was as if I had found a new friend. Up until then, I thought we were the only white family in Mississippi who thought these things were wrong.  Now, I had Hazel!

  I later learned that Hazel Brannon Smith owned The Northside Reporter..  The Reporter's office was fire bombed by the KKK in 1964.

   Even at 10 I knew about the Pulitzer (after all, I planned to win one myself some day!) I was so happy when my friend Hazel, won it for "Through Hazel Eyes." First female winner for editorials. Big stuff! Big news!

  But as Paul Harvey (a favorite in my neck of the Mississippi woods) used to say "And now the rest of the story."

  Starting in the late 50's, Hazel's columns took what the locals called "a radical turn." That meant she not only wrote editorials supporting the Civil Rights Movement, she presented the facts of unsavory incidents of white violence toward blacks. (Those stories never showed up in The Jackson Daily News, or the state-wide paper, The Clarion Ledger--both owned by the same family, and once labeled "the most racist, segregationist newspapers in the country.")

  Because Hazel was becoming all unhinged and dishonoring her "southern heritage," the White Citizens Council in her hometown decided to teach her a lesson. (The Citizens Council was a more upscale version of the KKK. Council members were white collar, professional men of the community---former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was a member.) The WCC began publishing their own newspaper to compete with Hazel"s. Within two years, Hazel's paper was in financial trouble as her advertisers defected to the Citizen's Council paper. Then, as a final flourish, the WCC engineered the firing of Hazel's husband from his job as county hospital administrator.

   Friends in the civil rights community took up a collection to keep Hazel's paper going. She limped along until she was awarded the Pulitzer for "steadfast adherence to her editorial duty in the face of great pressure and opposition."

   Winning the Pulitzer only enflamed the Citizens Council more. They organized a boycott of Hazel's few remaining advertisers AND her subscribers. She had no choice. One by one, she sold off her papers. Within twenty years of winning the greatest prize in American journalism, Hazel was no longer a newspaper woman.  With time on her hands, she helped out with The Jackson Advocate, the weekly for Jackson's African-American community. It was a volunteer job that involved driving 100 miles, round trip, several times a week.

    Hazel Brannon Smith died in 1994, at the age of 80.  She had no survivors.

    And I am left with a mystery. How did a woman, raised in segregated Alabama ("The Heart of Dixie" is still part of the state's license plates), a sorority girl at the University of Alabama, seemingly the average career woman of her place and did she transform into a Civil Rights crusader? As of this month, there are only two biographies of this amazing woman. Many people who consider themselves scholars of the Movement have never heard of her.

How did she become the woman of "Through Hazel Eyes"?  Perhaps there is a hint in Hazel's own words:  I'm just a little editor in a little spot.  A lot of other little editors in a lot of other 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.

   I wish she were here and writing today.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Bobbi Miller said...

What an amazing story! Inspirational!

Carmela Martino said...

Wow! What a story, MA. Thanks so much for sharing it!