Memories of the civil rights era

December 3, 2003
By

Ben Bagdikian on covering the civil rights movement in the early 1960s:

I spent a lot of time in Holmes County, Mississippi, and the county seat,
Lexington, including the period when I traveled with SNCC and stayed in their
safe houses. At that time, the Mississippi Highway Patrol was, for all practical
purposes, part of the White Citizens Council vigilante operation. Both persecuted
civil rights workers and it was just as dangerous when in a “mixed” car (carrying
both whites and blacks) to be followed by the patrol cruiser as by the Klan
or the many Klan-like vigilantes. At the time, the sheriff of Holmes County
was notorious for being an enforcer of segregation and a danger to the life
and limb of civil rights workers from the north and to the colored people
who cooperated with them.

For example, the courageous local paper was owned by Hazel Brannon Smith,
a feisty southerner who was a natural rebel. She once wrote an editorial saying
the sheriff simply must stop shooting Negroes in the back when they were in
his custody and in shackles. I was once interviewing a young native black
man working sympathetic to civil rights and when, to my dismay, I received
a phone call from my office in Washington, D.C. (you always left contacts
when you went South in case you remained incommunicado for an ominously long
time). Less than two minutes after the phone call, which went through the
old-fashioned local switchboard, a pickup truck with shotgun in its rack over
the dashboard, with two men, were driving slowly back and forth on the dirt
road of the house.

I finally left and when I got to the highway, the pickup truck followed
me and tried repeatedly to push my car into a tree or into a deep ditch. They
failed. But it was the sheriff who kept all such vigilantes informed and suggested
how they could be helpful (i.e., harmful).

Twenty years later, I went with my wife to visit Hazel Brannon Smith but
had forgotten how to get to her house. I went into the courthouse and asked
a tough-looking white woman at the desk and she glared silently and then jerked
her thumb down a corridor: “Y’all ask the sheriff.” I walked down the hall
prepared for a tough time and maybe the old tip-off to remaining enemies of
“outsiders.” As I approach the door to the sheriff’s office, I saw his cowboy
boots stretched out over the end of an extended lounge chair. As I got closer,
I saw more and more of the sheriff’s body, preparing to be insistent and unintimidated,
and as I walked looked at more and more of his reclining body, for one reason
to see if he had on his gun halter at his waist. Finally, I came to the door
and saw his face. He was a black sheriff.

I was stunned. I explained that I had spent years in Holmes County and was
looking for Hazel Brannon Smith.

“Why, sure. Old Hazel’s got a fine, new place that’s a miniature of Tara
in Gone with the Wind. Let me draw you a map to get to her place.”
I found Hazel and her new place was a ridiculous, resplendent copy miniature
of Tara. Everything had changed. I felt that Mississippi had rejoined the
United States.

This one of a bunch of memories posted at www.reportingcivilrights.org; thanks to Jeff of sidesalad.net for sending it along,

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