Maxine Smith listens to former president Bill Clinton during the 2003 Freedom Awards public forum at the Temple of Deliverance. Smith was awarded the 2003 National Freedom Award, October 28, 2003. (Matthew Craig/The Commercial Appeal).
Maxine A. Smith, an influential Memphis civil rights leader, died Friday April 26. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on his Facebook page.
Smith, retired executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP and a former city school board member, had chronic heart problems, according to The Commercial Appeal.
She was a part of every significant chapter in the city’s storied history of race relations over half a century, from protest to integration to busing to the rise of black political power.
“Today we mourn the passing of civil rights icon, Maxine Smith,” Wharton said on Facebook. “With her death, Memphis has lost a legendary leader for human rights and one of the brightest stars in the great expanse of our city’s history.”
“There is nobody like Maxine. She was an amazing woman with an ability to interact with all kinds of people, a brilliant strategist. … Above all, she was my friend,” said Rep. Johnnie Turner, former executive director of the local NAACP chapter.
Georgia Maxine Atkins Smith was born in Memphis during the Depression at a time of rigid segregation.
As an adult, Smith set about changing the racial status quo. In the process, she and a generation of black Memphians including her husband, former County Commissioner Vasco Smith, changed the city forever with a knowledge of Memphis past and present that helped them make the transition from protesters to elected leaders.
Her father, Joseph Atkins, was a postal worker who chafed under the rules of workplace segregation. Her mother, Georgia R. Atkins, was active in the NAACP. Smith said as a child the NAACP was “almost like a church” to the family.
She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at the age of 15 and four years later graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta.
Smith earned her master’s degree from Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and taught college-level French.
The state of Tennessee paid her tuition to Middlebury rather than allow her to attend a white college or university here.
Seven years after getting her master’s from Middlebury, Smith and Miriam DeCosta Willis tried to enroll in all-white Memphis State University and were turned away.
“I got mad and have been mad ever since,” Smith recalled in a 1977 interview.
Smith and Willis filed suit against what is now the University of Memphis in 1957. Two years later, the first black students were admitted to the university, although Smith and Willis were not among the group.
Nearly four decades after that lawsuit, Smith was appointed a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing board for the U of M and all of the state’s colleges and universities outside of the University of Tennessee system. She was appointed by then-governor Ned McWherter in 1994 and served to 2006. During her tenure, the board created a fellowship program and named it in her honor, the Maxine Smith Fellows program.