World War I veteran Lamar Smith knew the risk of registering Black residents to vote and encouraging them to exercise that right. His civil rights work led to his fatal shooting in 1955 on the lawn of the Brookhaven courthouse by three men who were never prosecuted for the crime.
Nearly 70 years after his 1955 slaying, a historical marker will commemorate the Black farmer’s civil rights work and life at the site of his death. The Board of Trustees for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History approved the marker at its Friday meeting.
“The board approved a group of markers, including one for Mr. Lamar Smith recounting his story,” said Katie Blount, director of MDAH.
She said the historical marker program is one of the department’s most popular and a way for people to get involved with history in a grassroots way.
Family members of Smith have supported the placement of a historical marker at the courthouse in his honor.
Some have wanted officials to go further. Several family members have gone before the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors multiple times to ask for the courthouse to be renamed in Smith’s honor, but the board has not done that, the Daily Leader reported.
“Any time we talk about [this], the pain comes up like it was yesterday,” said Alma Pittman, Smith’s step-granddaughter, at an April board meeting. “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.”
On Aug. 13, 1955, 63-year-old Smith went to the Brookhaven courthouse to drop off absentee ballots for a county supervisor runoff election between an incumbent and a challenger he worked for. Three white men approached him outside and shot him in front of at least 50 people, according to FBI documents.
Noah Smith, Mack Smith and Charles Falvey were arrested for Smith’s death, but they were never tried. Two grand juries were convened and did not take action because witnesses refused to testify, according to FBI documents.
The FBI reopened Smith’s case in 2008 as part of an initiative for unresolved civil rights era murders. It closed his case in April 2010, saying the three men were dead and unable to be prosecuted.
In its decision to close Smith’s case, the FBI said it did not find a prosecutable violation of federal civil rights statutes and noted there was a five-year statute of limitation on non-capital civil rights violations before 1994.
The FBI also noted the local coroner’s jury ruled that “probably other parties unknown” were involved with Smith’s death but were never identified.
Of the 161 civil rights cases the FBI reopened, 53 of them were killings that happened in Mississippi between the 1930s and 1970s. To date, a majority of the cases have been closed.
One of those cases was that of the Rev. George Lee who was killed in Belzoni months before Smith for registering Black people to vote. Like Smith’s case, the FBI closed Lee’s case because the man accused of shooting him was already dead.
In interviews for an episode of the 2008 television series “Murder in Black & White,” family members of Smith remembered him as a good man who wanted to help others vote, even when he was told not to.
“He said he would die for the sake of others,” said Smith’s niece, Jinnie Lee Wallace.