The Athens branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History hosted a documentary screening and a panel discussion on Lillian Smith on Sunday for Black History Month. Smith was a resident of Clayton, Georgia, and was known as an “anti-racist ally” who fought to end segregation and dismantle Jim Crow laws.
Smith wrote about racism and segregation years before the civil rights era, becoming famous for her 1944 novel, “Strange Fruit,” a story about an interracial couple in a southern town.
“In my opinion, she was Jane the Baptist. She came early,” Lonnie C. King, Jr., one of the organizers of the Atlanta Student Movement, said in the documentary.
Smith developed a theme in her work — while segregation not only demeaned and destroyed the lives of African Americans, it also poisoned and destroyed the souls of white people, according to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
“I was born in a land that is beautiful and terrible, broken into a thousand pieces by its ideas and fears and hates and dreams and its passionate loves,” Smith said in the documentary.
The documentary, called “Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence,” ran virtually from Feb. 15 to Feb. 22. It brought together the voices of professors, scholars, activists and family members of Smith, who spoke about Smith’s life, focusing on her advocacy for desegregation.
The panel discussion was moderated by Barbara McCaskill, a University of Georgia professor and Kim Waters of Athens ASALH. Patricia Bell-Scott, professor emerita at UGA and author, and Matthew Teutsch, professor at Piedmont College, were the panelists.
ASALH’s panel discussion focused on Lillian Smith as an “anti-racist ally.”
“On this day of Feb. 21 of 2021, I can’t think of a person more appropriate for us to be discussing and remembering than Lillian Smith … I feel like we need her voice right now, and much of what she was speaking about and speaking to has such relevance for everything that we have experienced in the last five years,” Bell-Scott said.
McCaskill said Smith was a mentor to those around her. She advocated for self healing, and she was uncompromising in her focus on social change.
She was also a study in contradictions, McCaskill said. She was powerful because her influence reached far, but she was also vulnerable. She was interested in her community but was also committed to the future, articulating what needed to change.
Though Smith did not use the term “ally” to describe herself, she gave up a lot for what she did and was looked down on because of it, Teutsch said.
Bell-Scott said Smith was an ally because her vulnerability allowed her to be empathetic to other people.
She was an ally in the treatment she endured because of her beliefs, McCaskill said.
“The bombing of her home … that just couldn’t help but connect her directly to the African American activists whose churches were being bombed, whose homes were being bombed. She lived with the real, physical threat … Just as we know that for African Americans, nowhere was safe … she wasn’t safe in those mountains either,” McCaskill said.
The panel ended with a discussion of activism.
“Lillian … she feels this sense of obligation to take care of people … really that’s what activism is about,” McCaskill said.