Lillian Smith (1897-1966)
Lillian Smith was one of the first prominent white southerners to denounce racial segregation openly and to work actively against the entrenched and often brutally enforced world of Jim Crow. From as early as the 1930s, she argued that Jim Crow was evil ("Segregation is spiritual lynching," she said) and that it leads to social and moral retardation.
Smith gained national recognition—and regional denunciation—by writing Strange Fruit (1944), a bold novel of illicit interracial love. Five years
Smith's writings, her investigative tours of the South, and the interracial conferences were signs that intellectual and social change was brewing in the South. By the time the civil rights movement made its dramatic debut in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955, Smith had been meeting or corresponding with many southern blacks and concerned whites for years and was well informed about the conditions in which African Americans lived, and about their anger and frustration. How do they stand it day by day? she cried out to a friend. She corresponded with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and publicly admired his work. She remained unflinchingly dedicated to him until her death. Smith greeted the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation as "every child's Magna Charta." The following year she wrote Now Is the Time, a tract appealing for compliance with the high court's decision. Her other writings were diverse—from The Journey (1954), a book of autobiographical musings and social commentary based on a driving tour of coastal Georgia that she made in 1952, to One Hour (1959), an attack on McCarthyism thinly disguised as a novel.
In 1936 the two founded Pseudopodia, a small magazine meant to further their ideals and to give southern writers, including blacks, a forum. After several renamings, including South Today, Smith closed the successful magazine in 1945 to devote herself to writing.
It is arguable that Smith's sojourn in China, where she witnessed prejudice, oppression, and constant violations of her youthful Christian principles, compelled her to become an outspoken social critic. But she was not a churchgoer and did not refer to herself as religious. She read the giants of intellectual modernism (namely, Freud) with great passion and cited modernist writers (Henri Bergson, Carl Jung, and Paul Tillich among others) in her attack on prejudice and narrowmindedness. Her own sexual orientation and personal life gave her a clearly existential understanding (she read most of the main existentialists of her day) of what it meant to be part of a despised minority considered deviant and dangerous by many.
By and large, Smith's neighbors were polite to her, but she knew what many southerners thought of her and could decipher the ugliness of the expression, uttered by Eugene Talmadge, that Strange Fruit was a "literary corncob." Fred Hobson has written that Lillian Smith "was not afraid to confront the darkness within Southern, and American, society—racially, sexually, and politically. She was, in the finest sense of that term, a moralist, an absolutist, one of the last of the all-or-nothing voices." Though her fame may have diminished since her death, she was an important early voice in the movement for civil rights in the American South, one of the first white southern writers to confront the evils of racism and injustice in a forthright, uncompromising manner.
John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
Margaret Rose Gladney, How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
Fred Hobson, Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State: University Press, 1983).
Anne C. Loveland, Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986).
Darlene O'Dell, Sites of Southern Memory: The Autobiographies of Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, Lillian Smith, and Pauli Murray (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
Morton Sosna, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
Bruce Clayton, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania
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