MLK And Lillian Smith

Mayor Robert F. Wagner greets Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King at City Hall, New York City, New York World-Telegram/Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday October 16, 1960, three days before the October 19 Atlanta sit ins where Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee concluded a three-day meeting at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Atlanta. Numerous individuals spoke that day, including Howard student and vice president of the National Student Association Timothy Jenkins and the chairman of the Atlanta Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights Lonnie King, delivering speeches to the almost 300 attendees at the conference. The meeting concluded with a keynote speech by Lillian Smith, a white, Southern woman who, since the early part of the twentieth century, spoke out extensively against racism in all its forms.  

That Sunday evening, Smith delivered her speech “Are We Still Buying a New World with Old Confederate Bills?” to an audience of mostly Black students. News reports about the event say about 50 white students attended, most from outside of the South, and Smith, early in her speech, tells those in attendance, “I regret that there are so few southern white students, as yet, working side by side with you; I am sorry they have not yet realized that segregation is their enemy also; that it harms their minds and souls as much as it does yours; that it blocks their freedom and their future as severely as it does yours.” 

Four years earlier, in March 1956, Smith and Martin Luther King, Jr. began corresponding. Smith wrote to him praising the Montgomery Bus Boycott and telling him, “I, too, am working as hard as I can to bring insight to the white group; to try to open their hearts to the great harm that segregation inflicts not only on Negroes but on white people too.” King replied to Smith in May, thanking her for the two letters she had sent him, saying that they “came as a great consolation.” He continued by telling her, “For many years, I have had the opportunity of knowing you through your books, and now I am happy to know you in a more directly personal sense. I only hope that it will be possible to meet you in person in the near future.”  

In December 1956, Smith wrote a speech for the First Annual Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change in Montgomery. Smith, due to her cancer, could not deliver the speech, but Rufus Lewis read “The Right Way is Not a Moderate Way” in her stead. In the speech, Smith wrote about the effects of racism and the ways that it led to “the white people of the South . . . giving up their freedom.” Smith became even more specific, pointing out that by holding on to “the status quo” white southerners relinquished their “freedom to do right”; “freedom to obey the law”; “freedom to speak out, to write, to teach what one believes is true and just”; and the loss of “freedom from fear.” Smith concluded by speaking directly to those gathered who had been taking part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the past year, “Do you, here in Montgomery, realize that in helping yourselves to secure your freedom you are helping young white southerners secure theirs, too?”

At the same institute, King delivered his speech “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.” Like Smith, King argued against moderation, calling for an immediate end to Jim Crow segregation. He said, “Now it is true, if I may speak figuratively, that Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed. But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tanks to keep the old order alive.” Both Smith and King pointed out the insidious nature of racism, the lasting effects that it has on individuals. Smith, drawing from her battle against cancer, wrote in her speech, “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” Following the 1956 institute, Smith’s speech appeared in Phylon and excerpts appeared in the New York Post, Civil Liberties, and more. As well, the Fellowship of Reconciliation published King’s and Smith’s speeches together, and they printed and distributed fifty thousand copies. 

In spring 1960, after having dinner together, Martin and Coretta Scott King drove Smith back to Emory University Hospital for her cancer treatment. “On the way,” as Coretta wrote in My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., “a policeman stopped Martin simply because he had a white woman in his car. Then, when he saw that he was dealing with that well-known ‘troublemaker,’ he issued a summons.” King went to the DeKalb County courthouse and paid the twenty-five dollar fine, and he was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation. He did not know, as Coretta points out, about the suspended sentence and probation.

A few months later, King was arrested during a sit-in in Atlanta. While he was released, along with others, in Fulton County, he was transferred to De alb County where officials kept him in prison because they claimed that the sit-in violated his probation. The judge sentenced King to six months’ hard labor at the state prison in Reidsville. King’s attorney asked that the judge not send him to Reidsville immediately because they were preparing a writ of habeas corpus; however, in the middle of the night, officers came into King’s cell and drove him to Reidsville.

John F. Kennedy was running for president against Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy called Coretta expressing his concern and telling her that if she needed anything, to let him know. Kennedy, along with his brother Robert, secured King’s release, partly as a political move to help secure the Black vote. Some of his advisers suggested against Kennedy getting involved, but Robert persuaded him to do so. As Coretta writes, “It is my belief that historians are right when they say that his intervention in Martin’s case won the presidency for him.”

We remember this part of the story. It gets retold, over and over again when we see documentaries or pieces about King or Kennedy. We remember that the authorities arrested King based on a traffic violation from months before the sit-in. What we do not get, though, is the cause for that traffic violation. We do not get that he was pulled over, before the cop even knew who he was, for having Lillian Smith, a white woman and his friend, in the front seat with him. We do not get that he was taking her to the hospital after they ate dinner together. We do not get that the two had a correspondence and relationship. We need that part of the story. We need to see the work that King and Smith did together, the thoughts they shared, the words they wrote to one another. We need their relationship in our memory.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King says that Smith is one who has “written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms.” Two months before his assassination, in “The Drum Major Instinct,” King, when talking about the “tragic race prejudice,” said, “Many have written about this problem–Lillian Smith used to say in beautifully in some of her books. And she would say it to the point of getting men and women to see the source of the problem.” King respected Smith, not just as a fellow anti-racist and Civil Rights activist. He respected her as a friend, and she respected him as a friend. Their friendship continued until Smith’s death in 1966. 

Upon her death in September 1966, King wrote to her family, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of your sister and our dear friend, Lillian Smith. Her writings, her exemplary life and her commitment to people and humanity inspired millions. She was one of the brightest stars in the human firmament. Probably no southerner seared the conscience of white southerners on the question of racial injustice than Lillian Smith. She carved for herself an imperishable niche in the annals of American history.”

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.

Comments on “MLK And Lillian Smith

  • This is a really good article. We need to expose these findings more and more with emphasis. Even today, it still seems like and appears that only one race is concerned or cares about eradicating racism. Even in our most recent elections, media would have you to believe that Blacks elected President Biden when in fact, more Whites voted for President Biden than did Blacks. The point is, collectively we did this. The more collective efforts in dealing with all issues, the Better.

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  • This essay is terrific, and I thank you for it, Mr. Teutch. I did not know of Ms. Smith’s connection to the 1960 arrest of Dr. King, and I should have!

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