Over the past few months, I have been making brief videos for Twitter. These videos are for the Lillian E. Smith Center’s profile, and each video focuses on some aspect of Smith’s work, usually connecting it to other authors and artists. Over the next couple of posts, I want to share a few of these videos. I will include the scripts I wrote and the videos. Make sure to follow the center @LES_Center.

Lewis Jones, Dorie Miller, and World War II

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In the Winter 1942-43 issue of South Today, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling printed Lewis Jones’ letter to the New York U.S. Attorney in response to the order that he report for induction to the Army. They write that many have heard about Gandhi in India, but few “have heard about the young [Jones] who has chosen jail as his means of protesting fascism in the U.S. Army.” Jones writes that he is not a pacifist or a conscientious objector; however, he states, “I cannot fight Fascism in an army where I am treated as an inferior citizen. I cannot defend a democracy which denies me the elementary right of fighting for it on a basis of equality with my fellow-citizens.”

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Dorie Miller served as a mess attendant on the USS West Virginia. As the attack commenced, Miller dropped the laundry he was cleaning, rushed on deck, and took command of a machine gun, shooting down two Japanese planes and rescued a wounded captain. As an African American, Miller did not receive formal combat training and was relegated to specific, non-combat duties in the Navy. Jennifer James notes that the War Department initially refused to recognize Miller’s heroic deeds until the African American press took up the story. James continues, “In a move both crass and ironic, the War Department then appropriated his name for military propaganda, issuing a poster featuring a drawing of the brawny Miller from the chest up, the slogan, ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ floating loftily above the sailor’s head” (168). When Miller served their purposes, the government chose to provide him with accolades and appropriate him as a symbol of the war effort.

Driving this point home even more, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Negro Hero/ to suggest Dorie Miller” (1945) highlights the hypocrisy found in the guise of Liberty. The poem opens with Miller blatantly commenting on the fact that he had to break the law: “I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them” (19). Later, Miller speaks of his love, one that goes against the Liberty he swore to protect: “Their white-gowned democracy was my fair lady,/ With her knife lying cold, straight, in the softness of her/ sweet-flowing sleeve” (20). “Their” democracy, one that Miller strives to maintain, hides something sinister underneath its flowing robes, a knife poised to strike at him if he gets too close. James views this image as the fears that white men harbored regarding the violation of white women by African American men. She says, “If the chaste white female body is a sign of nation, as Brooks’s invocation suggests, any desire on the part of black men to access citizenship becomes an act akin to violation, nothing less than a political rape” (169).

Laurel Falls Camp and Moore’s Ford Lynching

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In the mid-summer 1946 Laurel Leaf, the newsletter addressed to the parents of campers at Laurel Falls, Lillian Smith wrote about the recent mass murder of George Dorsey, Mae Murray Dorsey, Roger Malcolm, and Dorothy Malcolm. After detailing the activities and plays the campers had enjoyed so far, she concluded the letter by telling the parents,

Every once in a while, we look up from our magic Mountain where everything is so happy and gay, and suddenly realize that everything is not so happy and gay for other children in other places. And that worries us. The campers were very upset about the terrible lynching near Monroe, Georgia and have asked questions that are hard for a grown-up to answer. They want to know especially if the women who were lynched had children; and how those children are feeling, and who are looking after them; and how they must feel about living in America, and will they grow up to be good citizens and how can they feel good toward white people when white people have done these dreadful things to their mothers. I have not found their questions easy to answer. They want to know what they can “do.” And it is hard to give them a good answer. I think the most heartbreaking and frustrating thing for all of us who feel decent inside ourselves is to know what to do. If we don’t find some way for our children to express their kindly feelings I fear that they may find it easier psychologically not to have decent feelings but to grow instead a hard shell of indifference and blindness to protect themselves from questions that are hard to answer.

Smith’s comments about the campers’ reactions to the news of the mass lynching epitomizes her desire to teach them about the world, to keep them from forming “a hard shell of indifference and blindness” around them. She continues by telling that parents that she wants “to make it easier for us white people to live with our own consciences, and easier for our children to grow as human beings.” She worked diligently to eradicate the roots of racism that grew out of the soil, and she worked tirelessly to help children, Black and white, grow into human beings who acted when they saw injustice, who internally probed their own psyche, and who did not build “a hard shell” around themselves.

In the next post, I will share a few more videos. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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Note: Interminable Rambling will be taking the week of November 25-29 off. We will be back on December 3 with new posts.

One Comment on “LES Center Videos: I

  1. Pingback: LES Center Videos: II | Interminable Rambling

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