Memphis and the world lost another iconic figure with the passing last week of Maxine Smith, the longtime executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP and a pivotal local figure in virtually every important aspect of the civil rights era. Smith, 83, was born in October 1929, just as her country's post-World War I boom years were ending in a spectacular crash.
The rest of her lifetime would see the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War before things ultimately returned to an age of economic certainty. But one concurrent fact of human history transcended and survived that cycle — the aforementioned civil rights revolution, of which Smith was a prime exemplar.
During the years of her public school education, Smith could not, by law, attend the schools that white members of society could. Her fellow African Americans were deprived of equal job opportunities and played no role in their own governance. She was well into her adulthood before she could legally drink from the same public water fountain or change clothes in the same department-store dressing room or attend common entertainments at the same time and from the same areas as whites.
By her own actions, singly and in concert with other courageous individuals, she was instrumental in ending each and every of these legal limitations and in forcing the easing of other restrictions that had existed (and, to some degree, persist) only by custom.
As in the case of Rosa Parks, whose denial of a seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955 led to that city's landmark bus boycott, headed by the young Martin Luther King, Smith's ascent into social leadership stemmed from a personal rebuff. She and Miriam Sugarmon Willis, another civil rights pioneer, saw their applications rejected to do graduate work at Memphis State University in 1957. That led to Smith's initial involvement with the NAACP and her activity on behalf of sit-ins and various protests and voter-registration drives.
She led the "If You're Black, Take It Back" campaigns that boycotted downtown stores with segregated work forces and separate facilities. She personally escorted the African-American children who desegregated Memphis public schools in 1961. In 1969, she was a leader of the "Black Monday" boycotts to force further school desegregation. As a member of the Memphis City Schools board, she was the single most important factor in the elevation in 1979 of Willie Herenton, a black principal, to the role of school superintendent. And she was a prime backer in the election of Herenton as Memphis mayor in 1991, as she had been of Harold Ford Sr.'s election to Congress in 1974.
In retirement, she remained an inspirational figurehead, along with her late husband, Vasco Smith, a veteran civil rights activist himself and a longtime member of the Shelby County Commission.
The world she left behind was vastly different from the one she inherited. Asked once to supply her own epitaph, she said, "I gave it my best shot," and that was a pretty good shot indeed.