Lillian Smith

When people first hear about Lillian Smith, one of the first questions they usually ask is "Why didn’t I know about her?"

Some people say she was ahead of her time. She was an adventurous writer who crossed over from fiction to nonfiction to memoir. Her first novel, “Strange Fruit” (1944), was a national bestseller. Her semi-autobiographical “Killers of the Dream” (1949) was quietly dropped by its publisher. Her travelogue/memoir "The Journey" (1954) explored what it meant to be human in a world of atomic bombs and white privilege. She let her imagination and conscience guide her work.

Lillian Smith would say she was fully in her time.

She couldn't look away from the toxic social conditions that repressed the lives and imaginations of both blacks and whites. Segregation amounted to "spiritual lynching" she said.

She used her fame in the 1940s and 1950s to write and speak about it, becoming a champion for civil rights before the Civil Rights Movement took off in the late 1950s.

She became a voice of reason in the North. Here was a southern woman who remained in the South and wasn't afraid to speak her mind freely.

But in the South she was seen as a class traitor. Even moderates like Ralph McGill belittled her ("A modern, feminine counterpart of the ancient Hebrew prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah"), while others silenced her voice in newspapers, bookstores and classrooms.

She wanted change and saw no reason to go slow. She was unrelenting, uncompromising, and unforgiving towards white southerners who wanted to keep the status quo. She was threatened and endured two acts of arson on her property in Clayton, Georgia. From 1953 until her death in 1966, she battled cancer at a time when it was a virtual death sentence.

She never gave up.

She had the support of her family and a lifelong relationship with her same-sex partner, Paula Snelling. She celebrated the changes in her lifetime: the 1954 Supreme Court decision ("every child's Magna Carta"), the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. (they became friends), the civil rights legislation of 1964. 

Today her creative spirit lives on at the Lillian E. Smith Center of Piedmont College. She is buried next to the stone chimney left behind from a building where girls from her summer camp would gather.

"Breaking the Silence" will explore how this child of the South became a formidable voice of the South -- a voice that has been muted in the decades after her death.

Just as important, we'll show her relevance today as we face a rising tide of intolerance and discrimination throughout the world.

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