Don’t ignore past, even when it’s painful

Published 7:06 pm Tuesday, January 7, 2020

“Nobody wants to talk about that case, even the black elders in the community,” filmmaker Keith Beauchamp years ago said about the 1955 murder of civil rights activist and WWI veteran Lamar Smith. Smith was gunned down in front of the courthouse in Brookhaven while helping black voters with absentee ballots.

Noah Smith, a white farmer reportedly seen fleeing the scene with blood splattered on his clothes, was the initial suspect, according to newspaper reports. Sheriff Robert Case and District Attorney E.C. Barlow alleged that Smith had shot Smith for campaigning against the Beat Five supervisor at the time. Smith and two others were arrested. But on Sept. 13, 1955, an all-white grand jury failed to return any indictments.

The FBI at one point asked for information about the crime, hoping to solve the cold case, but has since closed it. Those presumed to be guilty of the crime are now dead.  Smith’s case didn’t receive as much attention as other civil rights murders, and some people would probably like to keep it that way.

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We were reminded of Smith’s story after reading about another civil rights worker who was killed nearby in Hattiesburg. Vernon Dahmer was killed in 1966 when the KKK fire-bombed his house. He was targeted for registering black people to vote.

Vernon’s wife and three of his children were inside when gunshots and gasoline-filled containers filled the house. Dahmer held off his attackers with gunfire while his family escaped through a back window. He later died from severe burns to his body. He was 57.

Dahmer’s story is back in the news because Forrest County unveiled a bronzed statue of the man outside the courthouse on Main Street in Hattiesburg Monday.

“This statue and ceremony are so well-deserved,” Reena Evers-Everette, Medgar Evers’ daughter, said. “I am just thrilled to see a man of such courage, integrity, intelligence and compassion honored in this way.”

Smith and Dahmer worked to accomplish the same goals, but their stories are not treated the same. Dahmer is regarded as a civil rights hero; Smith is rarely mentioned.

“Of all the cases I’ve dealt with, including Emmitt Till … the Lamar Smith case is the most difficult, and part of that is the connection to the White Citizens Council,” Beauchamp said. “But the rest of it is just people in the community, there’s a brick wall I’ve never experienced in Brookhaven.”

Some in Brookhaven would prefer to forget parts of its past, including the Smith murder. But in doing so, we are choosing to ignore a key piece of the state’s civil rights history. We are also choosing to diminish the sacrifice Smith made so that black voices would count.

Ignoring the past leaves us susceptible to repeating it. It’s doubtful Smith will ever get a bronzed statue on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, but at the very least the community should be willing to look critically at its past in an effort to forge a better future.