Yesterday, the Lillian E. Smith Center unveiled a historical marker honoring Smith’s life. work, and legacy. I am still process this event and its impact because as the program commenced and went on, I found myself becoming overwhelmed with emotions, and I am still, right now, processing those thoughts. I plan to write about the ceremony in an upcoming post. Today, though, I want to share with you Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt’s remarks at the unveiling. Unfortunately, she could not attend, so I had to read them for her. Below, you will find her speech.

History Marker Honoring Lillian E. Smith

Thank you all so much for joining us today on this special occasion honoring one of Georgia’s most important – but unsung heroes. I am so happy that today rights the wrongs of the past in finally giving Lillian Smith the respect and admiration she so deeply deserves.

***

In March of 2020, the city of Decatur, Georgia commemorated the 1960 arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr., for driving with an expired license near Emory University in Atlanta. Just a few months later, that event would lead to King’s sentencing to hard labor following a subsequent arrest for a sit-in at a lunch counter in Atlanta, as well as an intervention by President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Many historians consider this singular event a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.[1]

Yet one incredibly important part of the story was completely left off of the shiny new plaque in Decatur, just as it has been removed from much of our history. There was a reason the police officer had pulled King over in the first place, and it had nothing to do with traffic laws.

King had been driving with a white woman in his car. Her name was Lillian E. Smith, and she was a vocal antiracist and zealous integrationist. King and his wife, Coretta, had just finished lunch with Smith and were driving her to her cancer treatment at Emory hospital. When the officer pulled them over, he immediately recognized Smith as the “racial troublemaker” from the North Georgia mountains, and proceeded to arrest King on trumped up charges of an expired tag.

(::PAUSE::) So why was Lillian Smith effectively erased from a story that would have added texture and nuance to the narrative of antiracism in the South?

Quite simply, Lillian Smith – as well as her immense body of work – had been expunged from the historical record for political reasons. She was erased because she shattered every stereotype, disrupting the accepted narrative about both the South and race relations.

As an antiracist white woman fighting to end segregation in rural Jim Crow Georgia, a best-selling author whose books were censored, burned, and even banned in multiple cities across America, and a lesbian who lived with her lifelong partner Paula Snelling, Smith was erased from history because she posed – and still poses – a threat to prevailing hierarchy and power structure.

But Lillian Smith, and her ideas, undoubtedly deserve to be known by every American. Her essays should be required reading in classrooms; entire college courses should be devoted to her written work and activism.

From Martin Luther King and the head of the NAACP Walter White to the President and First Lady of Morehouse, Benjamin & Sadie Mays, to activists such as A. Phillip Randolph, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Alice Walker, and Mary McLeod Bethune, Smith not only offered support to Black activists and worked with them to change things, she also genuinely forged friendships with them. She helped a young Pauli Murray apply for and secure a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1944.

Twenty years later, Smith was listed as the only woman on “The Whites ‘Most Trusted’ by Negroes” poll conducted by US News & World Report, along with Chief Justice Earl Warren, Robert Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson.

Among whites – even self-proclaimed racial “liberals” – Smith had quite a reputation as domineering and uncompromising on questions of racial equality and integration, even as early as the 1930s. She was constantly pushing more moderate whites to the left, especially seen in her decade of work on the advisory committee of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).

As Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, scathingly wrote in 1955 regarding Lillian Smith’s uncompromising stance regarding immediate integration, “In many respects Miss Lillian Smith is a modern, feminine counterpart of the ancient Hebrew prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah who came, hot-eyed and accusing out of the deserts, to stand in the marketplaces of their cities crying, “Woe unto ye who are unrepentant and of little faith,” thereby causing many citizens to be sore annoyed and afraid.”[2]

But white “moderate” and racist white southerners will not be the ones who get to define Smith’s legacy; instead, she will now be remembered with her own shiny history plaque, celebrating her life’s work – not only as a pioneering antiracist, but also as a wonderful and provocative writer.

In fact, Smith mastered multiple genres: articles, short stories, novels, novellas, reviews, and op-eds. She was truly a renaissance woman, continuing to learn and hone her craft throughout her entire life; her bevy of fans even included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Lillian Smith also held interracial lunches, dinners, and invited African Americans to stay at her home – right here where you’re standing – overnight. Both her writings and her actions left her liable to be lynched. And although she was never physically attacked, she was the victim of repeated vandalism and theft, and even a terrible arson by two white boys that destroyed not only her home, but countless irreplaceable letters, photographs, notes, chapters, and even entire manuscripts. Smith also spent much of her later life struggling with metastatic breast cancer (the eventual cause of her early death), depressing her greatly because there were times she was not well enough to devote herself to writing and speaking out about racial injustice.

Smith showed the sins of the South, and of America writ large, but she held on to hope, and showed a path forward. She scolded and preached, but also welcomed back sinners with open arms and a forgiving heart. The key to peace, Lillian Smith argued, was giving something back to white supremacists whose self-images are shattered by modernity and progress: “when a man gives up something, even old defenses, he is not going to feel good unless he has something equal, or better, returned to him,” she so aptly wrote. “We must give our people new beliefs, new images of themselves to substitute for the old.”[3]

***

New beliefs, new images of themselves. It sounds like a recipe to heal society, even today.

As Lillian Smith so perfectly wrote in a Foreword to an early edition of Killers of the Dream, “This book is addressed to men and women who are concerned with the continued existence of an earth trembling between past and future. Hard, bitter facts of life are discussed in it that neither children nor fools can be nourished on. I have written as plainly as one talks to one’s family in crisis.”

That family, of course, was – and still is – white America. And we are still deeply in crisis, perhaps more so than at any other time in my life on this earth. Put simply, as Lillian Smith preached for so long, white Americans need to face our pasts, deal with the inequities of the present, and start living as antiracists, just as Smith did.

Let this honor today – this history marker which will forever keep Lillian Smith’s name and her important mission alive – both guide and inspire us. Let it remind us of the important work done by so many Georgians to create and equitable, peaceful, and loving society, and let it urge us to take up the work of antiracism.

Let us do this in remembrance of Lillian, a fearless pioneer, a truth-revealing writer, and a wonderful human being committed to justice and equality.

Thank you.


[1] J.D. Capeluto, “Hidden History: Decatur students shed light on 1960 MLK arrest, release,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 29, 2020. In reality, King had a current Alabama license, but the white Georgia police officer, of course, was not going to accept it.

[2] Ralph McGill, “A Matter of Change: NOW IS THE TIME. By Lillian Smith,” New York Times, Feb. 13, 1955.

[3] Lillian E. Smith, “Ten Years from Today,” Commencement Speech at Kentucky State College, June 5, 1951.

1 Comment on “Keri Leigh Merritt “History Marker Honoring Lillian Smith”

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Lil – Interminable Rambling

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