In his book, Hazel Brannon Smith, Jeffrey B. Howell reveals the complicated status of one moderate white woman during the Civil Rights Era. His secondary title, “The Female Crusading Scalawag,” accurately portrays her life both before and after the apex of the period.
Born in 1914, Hazel fit the pattern of the time to become a beautiful wife and hostess to some successful business man or politician, but she was having none of that. Instead, she did the unthinkable and bought first one and then several local newspapers in rural Holmes County, MS and its surroundings. Her first journalistic crusades sought out bootleggers and corrupt politicians. For almost fifty years she wrote an editorial column “From Hazel Eyes,” in addition to carrying local news with more attention to the black community than was normal for this area.
The book pictures her own personal growth from a strong supporter of Jim Crow segregation to becoming an ally in the black struggle for social justice. In doing this, it also brings light to the spectrum of both white and black views of the Civil Rights movement, to the change that often occurred as people gained insight into the issues, and to how people like Hazel often found themselves on the wrong side with intense advocates from both groups.
Howell quotes her toward the end with a philosophy that kept her in the business long after she had put herself in impossible debt trying to hang on, “There are already too many jellyfish in the world. We don’t need any more in the form of editors. But if the whole world turns against you, and sometimes it may, you still have your own self-respect.” She died in 1994, having lost her property to her lenders and her memory to Alzheimer’s Disease, but with her self-respect still intact.
The book is a good read for those who enjoy biography and an enlightening read for those who are interested in seeing that neither white nor black people in the Civil Rights Era can be painted with one swipe of a single brush.