This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
In 1888, less than 25 years after the end of the Civil War, the author, journalist, and legal activist Albion Tourgée wrote that American literature had “become not only Southern in type, but distinctly Confederate in sympathy.” Mississippi lawyer James Lynch’s epic poems Robert E. Lee, or Heroes of the South (1876) and Redpath, or, the Ku Klux Tribunal (1877) were national bestsellers. Henry Adams and Henry James featured unrepentant Confederate veterans as romantic leads converting Northern heroines to their perspectives in their novels Democracy (1880) and The Bostonians (1886). And the rise and eventual dominance of the neo-Confederate perspective in American literature, culture, and society remained a central trend through the century between the Civil War and Civil Rights, one that helps explain such distinct but interconnected cultural forces as the ubiquity of Confederate monuments and memorials, the blockbuster early film The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the staggering popularity of both Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1936) and its 1939 film adaptation.
Progressive Northern figures like Tourgée challenged those trends, as did African-American activists such as Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois, who together helped found the NAACP to advocate for African-American rights in response to such cultural oppression. Those figures and organizations also worked to highlight the horrific conditions for African Americans in an era that has been called “the nadir” for that community across the nation: the lynching epidemic that saw hundreds of African Americans brutally murdered each year by white supremacist mobs; the massacres and destructions of entire African-American neighborhoods and communities; discriminatory laws and practices that denied African Americans equal access to virtually every American space and right, from education to housing, voting to New Deal social programs. The century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement featured white supremacist horrors on every front for African Americans.
Yet one of the 20th century’s most eloquent and impressive critics of the neo-Confederate perspective and its destructive effects was a largely forgotten Southern white woman. Lillian E. Smith grew up in a privileged, patrician Southern family and became a writer, educator, and activist determined to challenge white supremacy and model alternative, inclusive visions of race and community.
Smith is the subject of a vital new documentary film, Hal Jacobs’ Breaking the Silence, which details the many stages of her inspiring life and career. Her father Calvin was an exploitative entrepreneur and capitalist in Jasper, Florida who fell on hard times and moved the family to North Georgia, where they opened the Laurel Falls summer camp for elite white girls. A few years working as a music teacher with a Methodist mission in China helped Smith begin to see the world differently, and when she returned to take over the camp, she used it to educate multiple generations of Southern young women in opposition to white supremacy. She also met and fell in love with a fellow educator, Paula Snelling, who became her lifelong partner at the camp, in writing and activism, and in their Clayton, GA home.
It was as a writer that Smith most consistently and compellingly expressed her inclusive alternatives to Jim Crow and white supremacy. Her first published book was the 1944 novel Strange Fruit, which uses the interracial romance between a privileged white man and a working class African-American woman to explore themes of race and community in a small Georgia town in the 1920s. While those themes connect Smith to contemporary Southern writers like William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, Strange Fruit explores the perspectives and lives of its African-American characters with a depth and power these peers did not approach, making the novel’s culminating depiction of a lynching far more tragic and significant as a result.
A final conversation between two of the novel’s more thoughtful white characters, the siblings Harriet and Charlie Harris, exemplifies Smith’s achievement in considering issues of race and segregation for all those affected by them. In the aftermath of that lynching, Charles admits that the “only thing I can see for anybody with sense to do is get out!” Harriet replies,
“You can’t run away from a thing like this. It’ll follow you all over the world.”
“Right now, I have some ideas,” Charles said slowly. “If I stay here twenty years, I won’t have them. … It’ll get me. It gets us all. Like quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink in it—I’m damned scared to stay—.” He laughed.
“Everybody’s scared,” Harriet went on softly. “White man’s blown himself up to such a size, now his own shadow scares him. Scared to do the decent thing for fear it will only do—harm. When every day by not doing—.”
Strange Fruit was both banned and a bestseller, largely due to its frank portrayal of interracial romance. But five years later, Smith published a controversial, ground-breaking book that went significantly further still in exploding Southern myths and white supremacist prejudices. Killers of the Dream (1949) is a collection of autobiographical, psychological, and sociological essays through which Smith analyzes the causes and effects of racism, Jim Crow, and white supremacy, both in her own life and experience and throughout the South and nation. “I had to find out what life in a segregated culture had done to me,” Smith reflects in an introduction to a 1961 edition of Killers, and her overarching diagnosis of white supremacy was that, “For the sake of a mythic belief in the superiority of their ‘whiteness’ … they are willing to drag us to the edge of destruction because they have lost touch with reality.”
Describing 20th century white Southerners as “sleepwalkers wandering around in search of a past that never existed,” Smith lamented, “I am afraid that we may not break our bondage to past errors in time.” But she dedicated the remainder of her life to challenging those errors and myths: in her writing, through educational and social programs like those at the camp, and in her advocacy for and participation in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. An enthusiastic supporter of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which she called “every child’s Magna Carta,” she published a book, 1955’s Now is the Time, imploring Southern educators, politicians, and whites to not only accept but take part in the processes of desegregation and integration.
By that time Smith had already received the cancer diagnosis against which she would battle for her final 13 years of life. She turned that battle into the subject of another compelling book, 1954’s The Journey, which grappled with intimate questions of and self-reflections on death, faith, and love, but once again used Smith’s own perspective and experiences to make the case for collective transformations as well. When Smith passed away in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to her family expressing both his sadness and his admiration for her perspective and career, sharing, “Her writings, her exemplary life and her commitment to people and humanity inspired millions…Probably no southerner seared the conscience of white southerners on the question of racial injustice than Lillian Smith….In this difficult and grief stricken moment may you gain consolation from the fact that her life was a life superbly lived.”
In an era of renewed white supremacy, of exclusionary division and hate that threaten to tear our community apart, we need the inspiration of exemplary American voices, writings, and lives more than ever. It is long past time that Lillian E. Smith, one of our most inspiring and impressive figures, occupied a central place in our collective memories.
Featured image: Library of Congress
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