A sign and a name: Slain civil rights activist’s relatives push for ancestor’s recognition

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2022

No one at the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors meeting needed to be reminded who Lamar “Ditney” Smith was.

The farmer, activist and World War I veteran had been shot to death on the lawn of the county courthouse in 1955 while helping African-Americans register to vote. Though there were 50-75 potential witnesses, the FBI finally closed the case in 2010 because no one had ever given testimony and the three me accused of the crime had all died by that time.

Monday, a niece and nephew of Smith — identified as Mr. and Ms. Scott — each spoke briefly before the county board.

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“Uncle Lamar ‘Ditney’ Smith was courageous, determined, and selfless because he believed that African-Americans and his family had the right to vote. … He has been dead for almost 67 years and he continues to be a role model to our family, and to other families for generations to come,” Ms. Scott said. “Therefore, the family of Lamar ‘Ditney’ Smith is petitioning the Board of Supervisors that the courthouse be named in honor of him, and that the name be changed to Lamar Smith Lincoln Courthouse.”

“We know that (what was done to him) was all wrong. So what we’re trying to do is get some type of justice for his family, his community and his friends, a couple (of whom) are still living,” Mr. Scott said. “Nothing has been done.”

In August 2021, Deborah Griffin, a granddaughter of Smith, asked the board to consider placing a historical marker on the lawn of the courthouse honoring his memory. In April 2022, another of Smith’s relations, Joe Smith, asked the board to consider renaming the courthouse in honor of Lamar Smith. Monday, Joe Smith asked the board to update them on their response to those requests.

“We want to know about the renaming of the courthouse and what type of wording that we need to put on the sign. We want to know where y’all are at on that, who voted for it,” he said.

Board attorney Will Allen answered on behalf of the supervisors. The sign was a “go” and the courthouse renaming was a “no” — at least for now.

“We submitted information to Mississippi Department of Archives and History for a sign to go right out here in the approximate area where we think he was probably killed. We’ve submitted that and are waiting on their approval. They meet twice a year, so we’re waiting on that,” Allen said. “If they approve it, the board will likely vote to put the sign up. I expect it to pass.”

The board has not elected to change the name of the courthouse, however, Allen said.

“The board has not decided to do that. That was not an option that they took,” he said. “That was just not something that the board wanted to do.”

Brookhaven native Roy Smith, no relation to Lamar Smith, also spoke on behalf of the family, saying the renaming of the courthouse could be “an important first step for fairness and gaining closure for this family.”

He said though Smith’s death was tragic, as well as the way justice was never given, for the board “to continue to discount and dismiss this family’s appeal for justice will be even more extremely tragic.”

Roy Smith asked board president Doug Falvey to tell the family where he stood on the issue, as the supervisor of District 5, where many of them live.

“He’s not going to respond to that; he can’t,” Allen said. “They vote as a body. They speak through their minutes. So the time will come when this sign comes back and there will be a public vote and Mr. Falvey will have an opportunity to vote then, but he’s not going to just tell you where he stands.”

Allen went on to say the board had been in favor of the sign since it was first presented to them by Griffin. Unfortunately, he said, the family could not completely agree on language for the sign, and it delayed the request for approval from the state.

“I wanted to try and get consensus so that everybody could be happy with what was going up, and that just has not been possible. And so it’s taken quite some time to get to a place where finally the board said nobody is going to agree exactly on what this is, but it’s county property and we’re going to put something up. Because the board recognizes the sacrifice he made for the voting rights of African-Americans. And it needs to be put up,” the attorney said. “I wanted to get the whole family to agree to the language. I can’t do that, so we just decided to go forward with the language that we had.”

Then Roy Smith changed directions, saying the family is no longer concerned about a marker. A marker would be more appropriate for a cemetery, and the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama, already has a marker in Smith’s memory. The board should instead focus on renaming the courthouse, he said.

But that ship has already sailed, Allen said.

“We’ve already submitted it to MDAH. If the marker is approved, then that will be the marker that is voted on and will be put up. They’re not thinking about changing the name of the courthouse right now. That is certainly something that they could take up, but it’s not being considered now.”

“If the courthouse cannot be renamed, then maybe it could be considered that one of the inside offices could have his name put on it,” Joe Smith suggested.

Roy Smith said “the family,” however, would prefer the courthouse itself be renamed.