As the date approached to unveil the historical marker honoring the life, work, and legacy of Lillian E. Smith I kept stressing over how many people would attend the event. I didn’t think, at any point, about how I’d actually feel during the ceremony itself. However, when the ceremony began on that cloudless spring day, with the birds singing in the trees and the wind blowing, the importance of this historical marker and the ceremony hit me square in the face, and emotions whirled within me. It was unexpected, but as I reflect on it, I realize that I should have expected such a reaction.
When I woke up that morning, I checked my phone, as one usually does when arising from slumber, and saw a text from Keri Leigh Merritt, our scheduled speaker for the unveiling ceremony. She had come done with something and would be unable to speak. She was disappointed, and as I felt for her, praying she would get better soon, the thoughts of dread crept into my head. While it may seem like I’m am optimist most of the time, or even a realist, I am, at my core, a pessimist, always dreading the worse. This may be from past failed events or from years of rejections in various venture or from who knows what. So, my mind began racing, thinking that the event wouldn’t be well attended and end up an utter disaster.
However, as I went about my morning, getting ready to head into work before the ceremony, I began to reflect upon one of Smith’s speeches. In 1956, she wrote “The Right Way is Not A Moderate Way,” and she was scheduled to deliver the speech at First Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change in Montgomery, Alabama, to mark the one year anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, due to illness, she could not attend, but someone read the speech for her. In that speech, Smith compares racism and segregation to the cancer she was battling within her own body. She said, “The tragic fact is, neither caner nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” They take root within our very beings.
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” at the institute. In his speech, King expressed hope in the future and challenged the audience to “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Both Smith and King did this, looking not at themselves but at humanity as a whole, always looking beyond themselves. They diagnosed the disease(s) that infect us, and they worked tirelessly to cure the individual while at the same time eradicate the disease. Following the institute, the Fellowship of Reconciliation published Smith’s and King’s speeches in a pamphlet that they distributed. As well, the speeches appeared in various publications across the nation. I thought about this moment, and the thought eased my mind because even though Keri could not make it, I would read her words and she would be there virtually, watching from home.
Later, during a meeting, I referred to Smith as “Lil,” the name that her family, campers, and those close to her used when addressing her. Someone said, “You just called her Lil, like you know her.” Even though I have never physically met Lil, I feel as if I know her through her work and the continuation of memory, something Lil talks about in her work. I know her because I have walked the land where she walked. I know her because I have read so much of her work. I know her because she has served as a guide on my own journey. For me, she is Lil, an intimate whom I will never be able to sit and talk with in a physical manner but as an intimate I constantly sit and converse with through my thoughts and through my engagement with her work and those who knew and loved her.
We held the ceremony on top Screamer Mountain, in front of the chimney, the only remaining section of the massive Laurel Falls Camp gym, and next to Lil’s grave. We stood there, about 30 of us, and the ceremony began. Following the introduction and invocation, the Haystack Choir, a group of students from Piedmont University, performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, the song that Mahalia Jackson sang at King’s funeral. I stood to the right behind the choir, close to Lil’s grave as they sang. Standing there, listening to them sing, I began to get choked up. The proximity to Lil, the song that meant so much to King and the Movement, the knowledge that I was standing, at that moment, in a space where individuals actively involved in the Movement stood, spent time, and talked, all came together, and I stood there hoping to keep from crying before delivering Keri’s words.
Once Haystack Choir finished, I stepped up to the podium to read Keri’s remarks. In her speech, Keri began by pointing out Smith’s relationship with King and her connection with King’s arrest during the 1960 Atlanta sit-ins. She noted the people who Smith knew, many of whom had been to the very spot where we stood that afternoon. She argued that Smith’s “essays should be required reading in classrooms; entire college courses should be devoted to her written work and activism.” She called upon us to remember the work of Smith and other Georgians who strove “to create and equitable, peaceful, and loving society,” and for us to continue their work in the present moment.
I held it together as I delivered Keri’s speech, but as the program moved forward, I realized it’d be difficult for me to maintain it throughout. Elyse Butler, the Georgia Historical Society Marker Manager, spoke about the occasion and read the text on the marker, a text that could only embody so much of Lil’s life and work. In the middle of the marker, it reads, “Smith openly challenged Jim Crow and provided a critical White vice on Southern race relations through her writings.” The phrase “critical White voice” stands out to me, notably because I think about myself and the fact that no one ever taught me about Smith growing up. No one taught me about Virginia Durr. No one ever taught me about Dorothy Tillis. No one ever taught me about James Reeb. Eleanor Roosevelt. Viola Liuzzo. No one ever taught me . . . I often think about how my trajectory would have been different, how our cultural would be different, if I had learned about white individuals such as those above who stood up against racism, segregation, and oppression. What would that knowledge have done for me? For others?
Following Butler’s comments, Catherine Gunn sang “I know that my redeemer lives,” the song that Lil requested Frances Townsend sing at her funeral. As she sang there, standing next to Lil’s grave, I looked down at the earth, trying to keep my thoughts and emotions in check. I watched an ant scurry around the rocks, going about its way, treading the well worn path that so many had treaded before it. I began to get choked up again, and I kept thinking, “I have to go up there and conclude the ceremony. I know what I want to say. Make it through this. Come on.” I kept encouraging myself, as I usually do in similar moments. However, once I returned to the podium and started talking about the people there who had known Lil, the people who had been on the mountain, and more, I felt myself starting to give way to the emotions. I didn’t break down, but I had to pause, on a few occasions, to regain my composure.
I concluded by reading the inscription that King wrote to Lil in a copy of his 1963 book Strength to Love. He wrote, “To my friend, Lillian Smith Whose friendship I cherish very deeply and whose genuine goodwill, great humanitarian concern and unswerving devotion to the principles of freedom and justice will be an inspiration for generations yet unborn. Martin”
These words summed up what the moment meant for me. It meant Lil’s legacy. It meant more that Lil’s legacy. It meant the legacy of King, Eslanda Robeson, Lonnie King, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, and all the others who had been at the camp, on those grounds, all of those who have fought for social justice. It felt like an extension of what Lil wanted her funeral to be like. In a letter to Joan Titus about what she wanted at her funeral, Lil wrote, “Death to me is a beautiful ceremonial, an ‘escort into the unknown,’ by one’s friends.” As Lil’s friends, we continued the beautiful ceremonial, ensuring that her legacy will remain for “the generations yet unborn.”