Sigh. Sigh. SIGH. I feel like I'm getting to the age where all of the "greats" are dying, because now we have lost Maxine Smith, someone who fought her whole adult life to make Memphis a better place for everyone. Not just blacks, everyone. Because when life is on an equal playing field for everyone, everyone benefits — whether they know it or not.
Ironically, when I found out she had died I was upstairs in the private dining room at the Fourway Restaurant with 25 journalists here from England, Holland, Norway, Spain, Germany, and France — all here to write about Memphis with a special focus on the Stax Museum's 10th anniversary, which is May 2nd. We were having a luncheon and panel discussion about Stax and the civil rights movement and the effect Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination had on Stax and the city of Memphis, trying to clear up the myth that all of the white and black artists and employees at Stax, who had enjoyed what they refer to as an "oasis in the desert of racism" that Memphis was outside the studio, suddenly stopped getting along with each other and that was the reason for the demise of Stax Records. The conversation was fascinating, and the European journalists were rapt, listening to very personal and intimate stories from those who were actually there and were brutally honest about what Memphis and much of the rest of the South was like at the time. When one of the artists mentioned that Maxine Smith had died that very morning, my first thought was to explain to the journalists who she was and why this was such a loss, but I quickly realized I had no idea how to explain that to them.
I was one of the white junior high school kids — 9th grade — who was in public schools when busing to integrate the schools began, for which Mrs. Smith had fought a tough, uphill battle. That would have been in 1974, I guess. I'm bad at math. And I was assigned to be bused to one of the inner-city schools. I think Manassas High School but can't remember for sure. And I was one of the white junior high school kids whose parents didn't want that, so I was forced to attend one of those hideous private schools that popped up in outdoor, portable classrooms. Seems like they were everywhere. It was a Baptist school in Parkway Village. And, nothing against Baptists because I know a lot of fine people who choose that denomination, it was one of the most miserable years of my school life. The only solace I had was getting to constantly question the "religion teacher" about how he knew what he was teaching really happened; what PROOF did he have. I was regularly in trouble for that and, well, smoking on campus.
Fortunately, the following year, something happened — not sure what — and I was able to get out of there and start high school in a normal place, Wooddale High School, which by then was integrated due to busing. It was like heaven for lots of us. Finally, we were able to be with students who were different from what we were used to, and a lot of us — not all of us, of course — embraced that and made terrific new friends who, no, weren't going to try to kill us or ruin the school or do whatever it was that so many parents were afraid of. It was like a new day had dawned for lots of us. I, for one, became a bona fide hippie!
The day after Mrs. Smith died, I got online as soon as I cleared the pollen and sleep out of my eyes to read the coverage about her in The Commercial Appeal (sorry, Flyer!) and, in that sick, rubbernecking-to-see-a-car-wreck way, I scrolled down to read the comments by those who post under fake names because they are too cowardly to actually let the world know who they are. To me, the racists among them might as well be wearing hoods. And, sure enough, there were plenty of posts blaming Maxine Smith and busing on every single problem in Memphis today, from crime and litter to urban blight and a horrible public school system, the latter of which is not, in my humble opinion, true.
I'm not going to get into what busing did or didn't cause or this whole debate about municipal schools versus a merged school system because it makes my head hurt and I can't be very objective about it because I don't have children. I just want to thank Maxine Smith for standing up for what she believed in and for doing something that, for me, helped open my eyes as a teenager and paved the way for a very happy and diverse adulthood.