Civil Rights Icon Maxine Smith Has Died
(Memphis) Maxine Smith, a long-time civil rights activist has died at age 83.
Last year she battled serious health problems, including a heart condition.
Smith was a civil rights icon.
If Montgomery, Alabama had Rosa Parks, Memphis had Maxine Smith.
For decades this wife, mother and state government employee became a force for change and equality…
She was both hated and loved, feared and admired as she tried to make a difference in Memphis.
Maxine Amith was born October 31st, 1929 in Memphis.
She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and received her B.A. degree in biology from Spelman College.
You could say she became a civil rights foot soldier when she applied to ‘then’ Memphis State University, now the university of Memphis, and was rejected because of her race.
Her rejection grabbed the attention of the NAACP in 1962 and she became executive secretary.
Maxine Smith, “In the 60s, Memphis was completely segregated, completely segregated.”
It was a time when African Americans had to demand the right to eat at lunch counters or go to public libraries or even drink from water fountains designated as white only.
She pushed for change by organizing campaigns boycotting downtown stores, restaurants, and businesses that would not integrate their work force or only allowed blacks limited access.
Mrs. Smith and the local NAACP always kept their eye one goal, “That goal is to completely eliminate all vestiges of racial discrimination in my country.”
Smith helped lead the way to integrate Memphis Public Schools in the 1960s.
She escorted the first thirteen children to benefit from desegregation.
She organized lawsuits, sit-ins and marches including the ‘black Monday” student boycotts from 1969 to 1972.
She even wrote about it in her book called “Unwilling Pupils.”
Mrs. Smith also served on a committee for the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.
Dr. Warner Dickerson told us, “Nobody that I know of has the tenacity that she has and the fearlessness that she had during a time when it was detrimental to your physical body to standup for the kind of things she stood up for.”
Mrs. Smth won election to the Memphis board of education in 1971, a position she held until her retirement in 1995.
She paved the way for Dr. Willie Herenton’s election as the first African-American school superintendent in 1978.
Thirteen years later, she was elected president of the Board of Education that same year her protegee Herenton became the first ‘elected’ black mayor of Memphis.
Smith was also one of the first African American leaders to throw her support behind the candidacy of Steve Cohen in the 9th Congressional District, a district, which is predominately black.
Maxine Surgery told us, “Maxine Smith has been an essential part of my success and a person a look to for guidance and support.”
During her life, Mrs. Smith would witness a disturbing evolution.
Instead of white racists beating and killing African Americans in the 60s, she saw violence brought on by black on black crime today.
Maxine Smith, “You’ve probably lost some generations. I hate to think that or say it aloud. If we don’t do it, nobody cares what we’re doing. We are destroying ourselves.”
Decades ago, she was angered by politicians who were openly racist.
Decades later she was angered by politicians convicted for being openly corrupt.
Maxine Smith, “My friend Russel Sugarmon(retired judge), who we started grammar school together and went on to Spelman and Morehouse together and asked is this what we gave 50 years of our lives for?”
Her work didn’t go unnoticed, Smith received more than 160 awards.
She was a member of several charitable, civic organizations, and was appointed to the state board of regents.
Mrs. Smith was featured in several documentaries about the civil rights movement,
A three story, Maxine A. Smith center, is even named after her on the Southwest Community College campus.
Another building, .. the Shelby County building, is named after her late husband.
Former county commissioner, Dr. Vasco Smith marched side-by-side with her in the civil rights struggle, “It’s a beautiful gesture, and it’s more than a gesture. It’s a real happening. Vasco deserves every bit of it.”
Mrs. Smith said her fight for others wasn’t for praise, “It was for a cause not an individual desire for grand office. We weren’t opening doors for individuals, we just wanted the door to be open whatever that door was.”
Maxine Smith opened doors wide that had been closed, she was a foot soldier and leader, a loving wife and mother who gave her all not only to her family, but to the city she city she loved, “Hopefully I have made life a little richer and fuller for somebody. I gave it my best bet and if I had it do do I would do it all again.”