Memphis civil rights icon Maxine Smith died Thursday evening at her South Memphis home at the age of 83.
Smith, the long-time executive secretary of the Memphis branch NAACP and a former member of the Memphis City Schools board, underwent heart surgery a year ago in Atlanta.
Smith remained politically active, working on behalf of candidates in the 2011 city elections. She was also a plaintiff in the still pending federal court lawsuit over consolidation of Memphis city and Shelby County governments.
But it was in her unelected role as executive secretary of the Memphis office of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization that Smith was best known and had the greatest impact on the city’s affairs.
Starting in the 1950s, the Memphis branch was the legal arm and brain trust of a broader civil rights movement as it negotiated an end to racial segregation in businesses and public institutions. By the 1960s, Memphis was a staging area for the larger movement’s protest forays into a hostile and violent Mississippi.
Smith was a key player in all of it. The Memphis branch has long been important to the NAACP nationally.
Smith’s own parents had been active in the organization during her childhood.
Smith maintained the focus on national issues but also kept the organization on the leading edge of local issues.
Race relations were the dominant local issue in Memphis and also a part of most of the smaller local issues. And Smith was a dominant voice in all of those discussions over a 50-year period.
In the 1970s, she was the face of court ordered busing and at the center of the civic storm the busing plan generated in a city that already had a legacy of difficult race relations. The buses began to roll after more than a decade of efforts in Memphis Federal Court by Smith and others to get Memphis City Schools to agree to racial integration.
Her public persona in those years was as fiery as the level of opposition to busing and opponents made Smith the personification of the integration effort.
She rarely acknowledged the personal and vitriolic attacks that included numerous death threats, keeping her public focus on the goals she was pursuing.
“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 last year as she commented on the coming merger of the county’s two public school systems. “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.”
Out of the public eye, Smith was more than a figure head. She was a masterful negotiator who could both challenge and disarm those on the other side of the table and around the table.
In and out of the public eye, Smith felt her objective was to make local leaders, virtually all of them white until the mid 1970s, never put race relations on a back burner or further delay discussions of the difficult and polarizing racial issues.
The insistence made Smith controversial. But it also advanced discussions of the issues that she and others felt were inevitable at some point and better resolved sooner rather than later.
Smith was also a factor in keeping at least a public working relationship intact among the various civil rights organizations of the 1960s who behind the scenes sometimes had deep and fundamental disagreements over tactics and strategy.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s and 1990s, the city’s African-American majority and its coming solidified Smith’s role as part of the city’s black political establishment. She and her husband were regularly sought out by black and white candidates for local and statewide office seeking their political support.
Smith ran for the Memphis City Schools board in the early 1970s and won election in a campaign marked by heart surgery and what amounted to a campaign in her behalf by others. She would later serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents as well.
“I don’t plan to go anywhere,” Smith said in May 2012 as she marked the donation of her papers to the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. “But my voice ain’t as loud as it used to be.”
The papers cover the scope and reach of Smith’s work as both point person and behind the scenes negotiator on issues from schools integration and schools funding to police brutality complaints and economic equality.
“Maxine was right there with all the men,” State Representative Johnnie Turner said last year. Turner succeeded Smith in the local NAACP post and knew her since Turner was a student involved in the sit-in movement of the early 1960s in Memphis.
“I’ve gotten so much more than I’ve given,” Smith said last year. “And it’s because of beautiful, beautiful people.”