Early voting rights activist murdered in Brookhaven may soon be memorialized

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Voting rights martyr Lamar Smith of Brookhaven

Although Lamar “Ditney” Smith was murdered with contempt on the Lincoln County courthouse lawn on August 13, 1955 at the age of 63, while encouraging fellow Black citizens to exercise their right to vote, his bold act and extreme suffering have not been forgotten.

A special effort is now underway to rename the same courthouse where Lamar Smith was killed for him.

“The family and descendants of Lamar Smith met with the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors on April 18 to prepare for the change of name in favor of the great and courageous local leader,” said Roy L. Smith, an avid supporter of the change. Despite the same last name, he is not related to the past hero. 

“We can’t change history, but collectively, we can make history by naming the building in honor of Lamar Smith,” Roy Smith said during the meeting. “It would be a great moment in Lincoln County history, Mississippi history, and, of course, American history. To memorialize this building for Lamar Smith would go far in bridging the gap of racial divide in Brookhaven and Lincoln County.”

Lamar Smith’s step-granddaughter was also reported as participating in the public meeting. 

“Alma Pittman stood silently in front of the supervisors, too emotional to speak at first,” Brookhaven’s newspaper The  Daily Leader reported. 

“Any time we talk about this, the pain comes up like it was yesterday,” Alma Pittman said. “I saw my grandmother suffer. She never got over it. It would be nice to have recognition of my grandfather’s sacrifice by the state my grandfather was murdered in.”

WAR VET

Smith, a veteran of World War I, sought to instill in his community the courage that many Black war veterans had acquired in combat.

“Lamar Smith was a farmer, activist, and World War I veteran helping those in the Black community vote absentee,” the newspaper said. “Many of the community feared attempting to vote in person, so Smith stepped in to bring the votes to the courthouse.

“Once he arrived, a scuffle broke out between him and three men. It wasn’t long afterward that Smith lay bleeding from a gunshot wound to the side. He bled to death on the courthouse lawn.”

MURDER 

CHRONICLE

Lamar Smith’s assassination was documented in the last of four episodes of the 2008-2009 series “Murder in Black and White” produced by TV One. Keith Beauchamp, director of the award-winning documentary on Emmett Till, was executive producer. And former Jackson Advocate managing editor Brad Franklin was narrator and played the role of Lamar Smith on screen.

In his narration, Franklin says, “Around Brookhaven, Mississippi, Lamar Smith was known as a fearless voting rights activist and that his personal safety was at risk. But a courageous and defiant Smith was steadfast in his mission to do whatever necessary to secure the right to vote for African Americans in his community.” 

UNFORGOTTEN

Jaribu Hill, the former Hollandale Municipal Judge and founder of the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights says in the TV documentary that Lamar Smith was defiant and determined to break with the traditional fear sowed by the Mississippi whites and the Ku Klux Klan.

“The act of defiance was what led to Lamar Smith’s being gunned down at the courthouse,” Hill said. “Others had raised the issues, but no one had taken it quite so far as to stand on the soil of the white power structure and say we’re not going to accept this anymore. And right there on the courthouse lawn he was gunned down.” 

Congressman Bennie Thompson, who also appeared in the documentary, said,  “For 100 years in Mississippi there were so few Black people voting that it really didn’t matter.” Considering the large number of Black majority counties in Mississippi, he said, “As long as those Black people didn’t vote it was not a problem.”

PUBLIC 

OBLIGATION

Lincoln County attorney Will Allen says he has been working with two groups representing the Smith family. 

The county attorney said the board has plans to install a Mississippi history marker on the courthouse lawn in honor of Lamar Smith. His wish is that the two different family factions would agree on what words should be put on the plaque. 

“Without that agreement, the plaque cannot be created,” Allen says.

Although at least 50 witnesses – and perhaps as many 75 – were present at the moment of the murder of Lamar “Ditney” Smith, no one has come forth to provide testimony. The death of  the pioneer voting rights worker remains one of the FBI’s oldest cold case files.

“No one helped Lamar Smith then,” the Daily Leader concluded. “The group of people who spoke to the supervisors hope they can find a way to help spread the word and keep the memory alive of a man who died for doing what most people take advantage of – the right to vote.”

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Early voting rights activist murdered in Brookhaven may soon be memorialized

By Earnest McBride
May 10, 2022