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VOL. 127 | NO. 98 | Friday, May 18, 2012

Civil Rights Icon Smith Donates Papers to Library

By Bill Dries

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Maxine Smith pointed out that the wheelchair she used to enter the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library was borrowed – and she also made a point of walking from the doorway of the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the library to her seat in the room.


And the civil rights icon stood as she spoke to a group of around 100 gathered in the archival center where her papers from 50-plus years of public life are now stored.

“I don’t plan to go anywhere,” she said. “But my voice ain’t as loud as it used to be.”

The library is named for the late national executive director of the NAACP who was part of the movement along with Smith and her husband, the late Vasco Smith.

“Russell, we are about the only two left,” the retired Memphis City Schools board member and longtime executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP said to retired Circuit Court Judge Russell Sugarmon, who was also part of the vanguard of the city’s civil rights movement.

Smith’s donation of her papers to the library was marked this month with the unveiling of her portrait by artist Larry Walker that was commissioned and donated by Metropolitan Baptist Church.

“It’s great material on some of the forgotten areas of the civil rights movement,” said Wayne Dowdy, history department agency manager for the library. “It’s really one of the two most important collections we have – Maxine Smith’s papers and E.H. Crump’s papers – the two most important political figures in 20th century in Memphis are those two.”

The papers also cover in detail such major events as the 1968 sanitation workers strike, the 1960s integration of schools and the 1970s era of court-ordered busing as well as the rise to political power in the 1980s and 1990s of black elected officials.

“I’m so glad to see my young people who were just babies coming up here sitting in seats of power,” Smith said. “You know, some politicians come just when they hope to get elected. But my political friends, I know, are here because they love me.”

Smith has remained politically active, campaigning for Rosalyn Nichols in the 2011 Memphis City Council races. Shelby County Commissioners Justin Ford and Melvin Burgess, elected in 2010, were among those paying tribute to Smith.

“I know I worried you,” Burgess said of his visit to see Smith years earlier the first time he ran for office unsuccessfully.

Smith remains as outspoken as she was in the 1970s when she was a pivotal and controversial figure in a city whose politics was defined by race much more frequently than it is today.

“We fought not because it was important to be sitting next to any color children, but because of the economic aspects of a combined school system,” Smith said as she talked about the ongoing move to a consolidated school system and the possibility of separate municipal school districts. “Yet we have a whole section of our county who would rather separate than see all of our children get an equal education. God knows, all of us need a little more learning.”

Smith’s reach and influence in the story of the city is evident even without the library’s portrait.

On a shelf outside the room, one of the books lying askew was “Three Years In Mississippi,” by James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. The strategy for Meredith’s integration was coordinated in Memphis with Smith and other civil rights leaders deeply involved in the planning.

“Maxine was right there with all the men,” said State Representative Johnnie Turner, who succeeded Smith at the local NAACP post and who got to know Smith and her husband as a student involved in the sit-in movement of the early 1960s in Memphis.

The Rev. Reginald Porter Sr., pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, recalled negotiations with a furniture company in the late 1970s where he got a first-hand feel for Smith’s ability to negotiate for workers. Porter was a last-minute substitute for someone else on the negotiating team.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” he said. “I saw her have a special ability to sit with another person of power and not only get their attention but also cause them to have to rethink their position.”

“I hope I made some little bit of difference,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten so much more than I’ve given and it’s because of beautiful, beautiful people.”

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