On March 10, 1956, Lillian Smith wrote a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. She told him how much she admired his work and how she thought that King’s approach would be successful. She tells King that she would like to have the opportunity to meet him, and she offers her encouragement to the movement. Along with all of this, Smith also noted, as she did in speeches such as “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” the effects that King’s work and the work of so many others would have on the white psyche. She writes for King to tell those in Montgomery, “I, too, am working as hard as I can to bring insight to the white group; to try to open their hearts to the great harm that segregation inflicts not only on Negroes but on white people too.”
Along with her assertion of racism’s effects on whites, she pointed out that racism caused a severing within the psyche, causing the oppressor to deny logic and succumb wholly to the mythological ideas of white supremacy that act as an umbilical cord that one must sever in order to truly grow and survive. In her letter to King, she writes,
I, myself, being a Deep South white, reared in a religious home and the Methodist church realize the deep ties of common songs, common prayer, common symbols that bind our two races together on a religio-mystical level, even as another brutally mythic idea, the concept of White Supremacy, tears our two people apart.
Smith explored, throughout Killers of the Dream, the ways that these myths created “logic tight compartments” that caused the severing of the mind: “This separation divorced our beliefs from the energy that might have carried them into acts, but we accepted this moral impotence as a natural thing and often developed what is called a ‘judicious’ temperament from believing equally in both sides of a question.”
Writing about her childhood, Smith talks about her upbringing and the ways that her education taught her to, as she puts it, “split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from my southern tradition.” Southern tradition became the umbilical cord, nourishing the mental split and feeding the racism and hate. The cord, during “times of ease,” did not exert much influence upon the person, “but when [one is] threatened with change, suddenly it draws the whole white South together in a collective fear and fury that wipe[s their] minds clear of reason,” blocking them from any logical contact with the world.
This severing allowed white men to maintain white supremacy and power because they silenced their consciences. At the end of “Three Ghosts Stories,” the chapter in Killers of the Dream where Smith writes about the myths surrounding white southern womanhood and sex, she details how these myths and the lustful actions of white men led to economic disparities. She writes,
I know now that the bitterness, the cruel sensual lips, the quick tears in hard eyes, the sashaying buttocks of brown girls, the thin childish voices of white women, had a great deal to do with the high interest rate at the bank and low wages in the mills and gullied fields and lynchings and Ku Klux Klan and segregation and sacred womanhood and revivals, and Prohibition.
By separating the mind, white supremacy creates a space where one can justify the oppression and subjugation of others without thinking about the effects it has on the oppressor or the oppressed. Smith knew this, and she wrote about it throughout her career.
Smith and King corresponded and met on various occasions. In 1960, after having dinner together, Martin and Coretta drove Smith back to Emory University Hospital for her cancer treatment. “On the way,” as Coretta writes in My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., “a policeman stopped Martin simply because he had a white woman in his car. Then, when he saw that he was dealing with that well-known ‘troublemaker,’ he issued a summons.” The next day, King went to the De Kalb County courthouse and paid the twenty-five dollar fine. He was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation. He did not know, as Coretta points out, about the suspended sentence.
A few months later, King was arrested during a sit in in Atlanta. De Kalb County officials kept him in prison because they claimed that the sit in violated his probation. The judge sentenced King to six months’ hard labor at the state prison in Reidsville. King’s asked that the judge not send him to Reidsville immediately because they were preparing a writ of habeas corpus; however, in the middle of the night, officers came in to King’s cell and drove him to Reidsville, 3 hours from De Kalb.
John F. Kennedy was running for president against Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy called Coretta expressing his concern and telling her that she if needed anything to let him know. Kennedy, along with his brother Robert, secured King’s release, partly as a political move to help secure the Black vote. Some of his advisers suggested against Kennedy getting involved, but Robert persuaded him to do so. As Coretta writes, “It is my belief that historians are right when they say that his intervention in Martin’s case won the presidency for him.”
We remember this part of the story. It gets retold, over and over again when we see documentaries or pieces about King or Kennedy. We remember that the authorities arrested King based on a traffic violation from months before the sit in. What we do not get, though, is the cause for that traffic violation. We do not get that he was pulled over, before the cop even knew who he was, for having Lillian Smith, a white woman and his friend, in the front seat with him. We do not get that he was taking her to the hospital after they ate dinner together. We do not get that the two had a correspondence and relationship. We need that part of the story. We need to see the work that King and Smith did together, the thoughts they shared, the words they wrote to one another. We need their relationship in our memory.
Upon her death in September 1966, King wrote to her family, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of your sister and our dear friend, Lillian Smith. Her writings, her exemplary life and her commitment to people and humanity inspired millions. She was one of the brightest stars in the human firmament. Probably no southerner seared the conscience of white southerners on the question of racial injustice than Lillian Smith. She carved for herself an imperishable niche in the annals of American history.”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
If you enjoy what you read here at Interminable Rambling, think about making a contribution on our Patreon page.