Lillian Smith: Her Life and Message
Internationally acclaimed as author of the controversial novel, Strange Fruit (1944), Lillian Smith was the most liberal and outspoken of white mid-twentieth century Southern writers on issues of social, and especially racial, injustice. When other Southern liberals such as Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, Virginius Dabney, and Jonathan Daniels were charting a cautious course on racial change, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness, she was often scorned by more moderate southerners, threatened by arsonists, and denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life.
Born December 12, 1897 , Lillian Smith grew up in Jasper, Florida , daughter of a prominent business and civic leader. Smith's life as a daughter of upper-class whites in the small-town Deep South ended abruptly when her father lost his turpentine mills in 1915 and moved the family to their summer home in the mountains of Clayton , Georgia . Financially on her own, Smith studied and began a music career, but her musical ambitions ended when her parents, in ill health, asked her to direct a summer camp for girls.
Under her direction from 1925 through 1948, Laurel Falls Camp became an outstanding innovative educational institution. At least part of her intent was, as she wrote one camper's mother, “to wake up the little sleeping beauties that our Anglo-American culture has anesthetized, or rather put in a deep freeze.” Encouraging emotional and psychological as well as physical development, Smith helped the daughters of white upper-class southerners question their world and begin to envision the possibility of change.
Through the camp Smith also met Paula Snelling, and began the life-long relationship that encouraged and sustained her writing career. As intellectuals, keenly interested in the political and literary ferment that began in the 1920's South, Smith and Snelling entered the public arena by publishing a small literary magazine they co-edited from 1936-45. Publishing and reviewing the literary work and opinions of black and white women and men, the magazine addressed a wide range of political, social, and economic issues and quickly achieved acclaim as a forum for liberal ideas in the region.
A far-reaching, perceptive analysis of the South and human understanding informs Smith's books:
Strange Fruit (1944). Set in the post World War I South of her youth, the love story between a black woman and a white man – banned for obscenity in Boston – was translated into fifteen languages and produced as a Broadway play.
Killers of the Dream (1949). The more conflicting aspects, “the hard lessons dealing with sin, sex, and segregation,” form the basis of her most perceptive critique of Southern culture.
The Journey (1954). “I went in search for an image of the human being I could be proud of.” Through this moving spiritual autobiography she found the true measure of the human spirit to be the individual's creative response to ordeal.
Now is the Time (1955). Calling the Supreme Court's ruling on school desegregation “every child's Magna Carta,” she urged compliance with both the letter and spirit of that law.
One Hour (1959). After two young white boys set fire to her home in November 1955, destroying her personal belongings, thousands of valuable letters, and unpublished manuscripts, Smith addresses her own questions about why her ideas about social change and human relationships were so strongly resisted.
Our Faces, Our Words (1964). One of the most insightful portrayals of the early 1960's civil rights movement, reveals her personal knowledge and experience with young civil rights activists.
Smith refused to separate the seemingly conflicting roles of artist and activist. Although she rarely identified herself with any organization, Smith was deeply respected and sought after by those who actively worked for justice in the South. She played a major role in supporting, advising, and criticizing the work of such national and regional organizations as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Congress of Racial Equality, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Southern Regional Council.
The Lillian Smith Book Awards honors those authors who, through their writing, carry on Smith's legacy of elucidating the condition of racial and social inequity and proposing a vision of justice and human understanding.