Hartman Turnow speaks at a Third Sunday county-wide meeting in Holmes County, MS, Photo by Sue (Lorenzi) Sojourner, Zinn Education Project
A Story from Here
Black people in Holmes County had a long history of organizing to fend off white supremacist power. This was largely because many Black farmers became landowners as a part of a program of the New Deal. By the time the 1960s rolled around, many Black farmers had been living on their own land for 20 or 30 years.
The core of leadership in Holmes County came and got SNCC in neighboring Leflore County. When Hartman Turnbow, Ozell Mitchell, and Ben Square – all independent farmers – traveled the 30 miles to Greenwood, they had already weighed the dangers and risks of mounting a voter registration campaign in their county. They arranged for the Sanctified Church and the upstairs of an old store in Tchula where the Black Masons met back in Holmes County to be used for citizenship classes. Alma Mitchell Carnegie, Ozell Mitchell’s older sister, opened up her home to SNCC organizers, which already has a history of housing organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s.
In addition to its large number of Black landowners, Holmes County was also home to a newspaper that tried to provide fair and accurate reporting of civil rights issues in Mississippi. Hazel Brannon Smith, the white female publisher and editor had come to Holmes County in 1935 at the age of 22. She first bought The Durant News and then The Lexington Advertiser, the only major paper in Holmes County at the time. Smith was deeply critical of local law enforcement and the criminal justice system, even though she still believed in segregation. She believed in fair play and insisted on it in her role as editor, receiving resistance from most whites in the area. The Citizens’ Council, that she publicly considered “would-be political dictators and racial fanatics who want to control the people of Holmes County and tell them what to think, say, and do,” were particularly antagonistic. They started their own paper so as to run her into bankruptcy.
On Halloween night of 1960, an eight-foot cross was set fire in her yard. During the 1964 Freedom Summer, one of her newspapers, the Northside Reporter in Jackson, was bombed. That same year she became the first woman to received a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. A boycott of her newspapers finally forced her out of business and she moved to Cleveland, Ohio where she died in 1995.
In the rural South where white landownership was the rule, Holmes County stood out with Black residents owning 73% of the land and making up 75% of the population. Many Black landowners bought property through low interest loans provided through the Farmers Home Administration project of the New Deal, and land ownership fostered a fierce independence among Black farmers. Long before SNCC organizers arrives, Black residents had built a strong foundation as a community of struggle. But Holmes County’s white residents still had a tight grasp on local economic and political power. The banks, stores, and the courthouse in Lexington, the county seat, remained firmly in white control. It was the Black landowners, however, that first challenged this power, making up the majority of the “First Fourteen” residents that tried to register to vote on April 9, 1963.
Charles Cobb, On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail
Sue Sojourner, Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi
Jan Whitt, Burning Crosses and Activist Journalism
Lexington Advertiser, June 30, 1960