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Lillian Smith Studies: Lillian Smith and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Telegram from King to Smith's Family on Her Passing

Lillian Eugenia Smith Papers UGA

80 7   King, Martin Luther, 1966
box folder

Smith's and King's Speeches from December 1960

Lillian Smith October 1960


During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Lillian Smith wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first, and her letter begins, "I have with a profound sense of fellowship and admiration been watching your work in Montgomery. I cannot begin to tell you how effective it seems to me, although I must confess I have watched it only at a long distance." Thus began the friendship between Smith and King, a friendship that would last until Smith's death in 1966. Following Smith's passing, King wrote to her family saying, "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." 

In his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle--have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South."  

In the spring of 1960, King, along with his wife Coretta, drove Smith back to the hospital following a dinner. A police officer stopped them, probably because Smith was in the front seat with King, and once the officer discovered it was King driving the officer issued King a ticket. King paid the ticket, but he did not realize he was on probation. 

Later that year, on October 19, 1960, student activists and King participated in sit-ins in the city of Atlanta. They were arrested, and King was transferred to DeKalb County because of the probation violation after the students were released. The Kennedys worked to get King out of prison, and this helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency. 

Three days earlier, on October 16, 1960, Smith delivered the keynote speech to the students during a SNCC workshop at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in preparation for the sit-ins. Following King's arrest and transfer, she wrote to Mayor Hartsfield, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and more arguing for his release. Paul and Stephen Kendricks' Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election details the political aspects of these events. While they do not focus on Smith, Paul and I discuss her in relation to these events on the LES Center's podcast "Dope with Lime."  

Possible Activities

  1. In December 1956, the Montgomery Improvement Association hosted the first annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lillian Smith wrote speeches for the institute. Smith, due to ill health, could not deliver her speech in person; however, Dr. Hylan Lewis read Smith's speech in her stead. Have students read King's "Facing the Challenge of a New Age" and Smith's "The Right Way is Not a Moderate Way" (below) and have them compare both King's and Smith's speeches in relation to one another and in relation to the Civil Rights Movement. 
  2. Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream originally appeared in 1949, but it was reissued during the Civil Rights Movement in 1961. For that edition, she added a letter to her publisher. At the end of the letter, Smith writes, "As I write this sentence, sitting in my home in Georgia, a mob of more than a thousand white men has surrounded a Negro church in Montgomery, Alabama. It is Sunday night. Inside the Negroes are singing; they stop now and then to listen to Martin Luther King, their leader in nonviolent action, as he speaks quietly to them. Now and then, one of the other ministers speaks. The radio has just stated that Dr. King has gone into the church office to call Robert Kennedy, the United States Attorney General asking for more protection. 'The mob is drawing nearer,' Dr. King said quietly, 'we could take a little more help.'" Have students research what took place on May 21, 1961, in Montgomery and have them think about Smith writing about hearing the events unfold as she writes a new preface to her book. As well, have students create a timeline, filling in events that occurred between the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955-56 and Smith's and King's speeches and the events on May 21, 1961. 
  3. The Fellowship of Reconciliation published Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story in 1957. The comic had an enormous impact on the Civil Rights Movement, including inspiring John Lewis. Have students look at the comic then examine more contemporary comics such as March or Darkroom. Have students think about the ways that comics works as a medium of education and of activism.