August 13th, 1955
Voting Rights Activist Lamar Smith Murdered in Mississippi
On the morning of August 13, 1955, Lamar Smith, a 63-year-old African American farmer and veteran of World War I, was shot and killed in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, while encouraging African Americans to vote in a local run-off election. Smith, a locally known voting rights advocate affiliated with the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, had been threatened and warned to stop trying to register and organize African American voters in the community. These threats were realized when Smith was murdered on the courthouse lawn in front of dozens of witnesses, including Sheriff Robert E. Case, who permitted one of the alleged assailants to leave the crime scene covered in blood. Days later, that man and two others were arrested in connection with the shooting. All three suspects were white.
In September 1955, a grand jury composed of 20 white men declined to indict the three suspects for murder after witnesses failed to come forward to testify. Following the grand jury’s report, District Attorney E.C. Barlow criticized the lack of witness cooperation and complained about the sheriff’s handling of the case. Despite Barlow’s public promises to proceed with the investigation, the criminal case against the three suspects was dismissed. No one was punished for the crime.
Smith’s death was one of several racially-motivated killings in Mississippi that year, including the May 1955 murder of civil rights leader George Lee in Belzoni; the abduction and murder of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955; and the fatal shooting of Gus Courts in Belzoni in December 1955. Throughout the next decade and beyond, Mississippi would be known as one of the most violent and deadly environments in the fight for equal rights.