Lillian Smith: Breaking The Silence
Lillian Smith: Breaking The Silence
A documentary film about the life of Southern author, activist Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith was one of the first white southern authors to speak out publicly against the evils of segregation.

She was shamed, ridiculed and silenced for her beliefs.

She couldn't look away.

She never gave up.

George Yancy of Emory University, featured in the documentary "Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence" describes why Smith is still so relevant today.

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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Support the Film

We need your support to hold future screenings and encourage dialogue about the critical issues that Lillian confronted. Follow the donate link below to make a contribution.

Your donation will go toward production costs (we raised half the necessary funds to make the documentary), hosting screenings, travel, film festival submissions, worldwide licensing rights, and more.

Filmmakers Hal Jacobs (with marker) and Henry Jacobs (looking on, camera in hand) at Decatur Library premiere screening.

Filmmakers Hal Jacobs (with marker) and Henry Jacobs (looking on, camera in hand) at Decatur Library premiere screening.



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I believe that voices like those of Miss Lillian E. Smith of Georgia...represent the true and basic sentiments of Millions of Southerners, whose voices are yet unheard, whose course is yet unclear and whose courageous acts are yet unseen.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lillian Smith is a very great, and heroic, and very lonely figure. She has paid a tremendous price for trying to do what she thinks is right. And the price is terribly, terribly high.
— James Baldwin
Her writings, her words inspired us all to do better.
— John Lewis
I believe so thoroughly in the philosophy and ideals of Lillian Smith that her productions always bring to me that broadening of vision and soundness of understanding that inspires.
— Mary McLeod Bethune
I know well what the life and spirit of Lillian Smith represents—the transcendence of the artist over the unspeakable atrocities of her time. She was the word made fire.
— Pat Conroy
The South can hardly be said to recognize itself without this book [Lillian Smith’s “Strange Fruit”].
— Alice Walker

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Panelists at our premiere screening at the Decatur Library: (from left) Brenda Bynum, Craig Amason, Hal Jacobs, Patricia Bell-Scott, Rose Gladney.

Panelists at our premiere screening at the Decatur Library: (from left) Brenda Bynum, Craig Amason, Hal Jacobs, Patricia Bell-Scott, Rose Gladney.

About the Project

Find out more and follow the progress of this 52-minute documentary on Facebook. To schedule a screening, contact


March 27-28, 2020 | Decatur, Ga. | time tba | In conjunction with the Lost Southern Voices Festival

October 26, 2019 | Athens, Ga. | Noon | Private screening ($25 registration) at the Lillian E. Smith Symposium, sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of Piedmont College

September 19, 2019 | Athens, Ga. | 6 p.m. | Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Richard B. Russell Building, University of Georgia

September 5, 2019 | Portland, Oregon | 7 p.m. | Clinton Street Theater

August 30, 2019 | Decatur, Ga. | time tba | Decatur Library (sponsored by the Decatur Book Festival)

May 19, 2019 | Decatur, Ga.| Decatur Library (sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book)

May 17, 2019 | Decatur, Ga.| Decatur Library (sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book)

May 16, 2019 | Decatur, Ga.| Decatur Library (sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book)


ARTS/ATL, “Breaking The Silence” To Shed Light on the Life of Georgia Author and Activist Lillian Smith, by Donna Mintz (December 19, 2018)


Craig Amason, Director of Lillian E. Smith (LES) Center and Piedmont College Archivist

Patricia Bell-Scott, PhD, Author of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (2016, winner of the Lillian Smith Book Award and named Booklist Best Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year by the American Library Association); professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia

Julia Brock, PhD, Assistant professor of history, University of Alabama

Brenda Bynum, Writer/Actress of one-woman show “Jordan Is So Chilly: An Encounter with Lillian Smith”

Nannette Curran, Clayton resident and acquaintance of Lillian Smith

Nancy Smith Fichter, PhD, LES niece and former chair of FSU Dance Department

Rose Gladney, PhD, Co-editor of A Lillian Smith Reader (2016); Editor of How Am I to Be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith (1993); professor emerita of American Studies at the University of Alabama

Lonnie King, leader of 1960 Atlanta Student Movement, Atlanta businessman

Susan Montgomery, Boston-area high school counsellor who has recently “discovered” Lillian Smith

Emily Pierce, Piedmont College student, Lillian E. Smith Fellow

Diane Roberts, PhD, Author, columnist, essayist, radio commentator, reviewer and professor, Florida State University

Tommye Scanlin, Weaver and board member of the Lillian E. Smith Center

Jane Stembridge, 1960s SNCC member, poet and personal friend of Lillian Smith

Christopher Willoughby, PhD, 2016 dissertation on “Pedagogies of the Black Body: Race and Medical Education in the Antebellum United States”

George Yancy, PhD, Author, Professor of Philosophy, Emory University, contributor to New York Times "The Stone" forum


Neutral Ground pt. 1 & 2
performed by Maggie Koerner
lyrics and music by Maggie Koerner

lyrics and music and performed by Flight of Swallows

lyrics and music and performed by Waiting4UFOs

performed by Jake Xerxes Fussell
lyrics and music by Loy Clingman
courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors

Red Prairie Dawn
performed by Front Porch Collective
music by Garry Harrison
courtesy of Genevieve Koester

Strange Fruit
performed by Fahamu Pecou, Allen the Human, Okorie Johnson
lyrics and music by Fahamu Pecou, Allen Michael Coe, Brian Harrison, Okorie Johnson
based on original song by Abel Meeropol

Lloyd’s Groove
music and performed by Lloyd Buchanan

Midnight on the Water
performed by Front Porch Collective

Additional music from

In October 2017, the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), a nonprofit arts organization and leading advocate for powerful southern storytelling, added the project to its roster of films that "aim to bring injustice to light, and to reveal truths, large and small, about the world around us."

The documentary has also received support from the Lillian E. Smith Center of Piedmont College, Georgia Humanities, the Watson-Brown Foundation, and the GSU Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies.

If you would like to support this project with a tax-deductible donation, please visit the link below.

Hal Jacobs

Hal started his own film/video production company in 2014 after a decades-long career as freelance writer and editor in higher education. His 2017 film, Mary Crovatt Hambidge: Wanderer, Whistler, Weaver, Utopian, was awarded the “Best Documentary” award at the Spring 2017 Southern Shorts Film Festival and was screened at the Atlanta History Center in September 2017. His work often brings him into collaboration with his son, Henry, while his other son, Daniel, serves the U.S. as a foreign service officer.

Henry Jacobs

Henry is a photographer, filmmaker and musician. He is also the Middle Chattahoochee Outreach Director for Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. His photography has appeared publicly in several juried exhibitions and can be found in the permanent collection of the Lamar Dodd Art Center of LaGrange College. A licensed drone pilot, in 2016 he travelled to La Libertad, Guatemala, to produce documentary films for a project called "Love Crosses Borders.”