Renowned for her controversial books exploring segregation, white supremacy, and other social mores, author Lillian Smith was an advocate of racial reform in the South. In a 1956 letter to Martin Luther King, Smith expressed a “profound sense of fellowship and admiration” for King’s efforts and his commitment to nonviolence and asked him to pass along a message to the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA): “Tell them, please, that I am deeply humbled by the goodwill, the self discipline, the courage, the wisdom of this group of Montgomery Negroes” (Papers 3:170).
One of nine children in an affluent family, Smith was born on 12 December 1897, in Jasper, Florida. She attended Piedmont College, studied music at the Peabody Conservatory, and took classes at Columbia University. In 1922 she became head of the Music Department at an American Methodist school for Chinese girls in Huchow, China, where she developed an aversion to the arrogance of white colonialism and drew parallels to similar behavior in the segregated South. From 1925 to 1948, Smith managed the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, founded by her parents in Clayton, Georgia. In 1936 she launched a literary magazine with Paula Snelling. Eventually titled The South Today, the magazine was devoted to Southern politics and culture and included works written by African Americans and women.
Smith’s first novel, Strange Fruit (1944), dealt with the taboo subject of an interracial love affair and was banned in Boston, Massachusetts, as obscene. The controversial bestseller was the first of her several books addressing issues of social change, including Killers of the Dream (1949), The Journey (1954), and Now Is the Time (1955).
Smith’s outspoken advocacy in support of the civil rights struggle made her a target for segregationists. In the winter of 1955, two young white boys burned down her house, destroying her correspondence, manuscripts, and works in progress. In a letter to King, Smith wrote, “It is hard to believe they did it because of race. But this lawlessness of the young is a direct result of the lawlessness of their elders, many of whom do not hesitate to say they will not obey the highest law of our land when that law does not suit them” (Smith, 3 April 1956).
Smith wrote a positive review of King’s Montgomery bus boycott memoir, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), predicting that it would become “a classic story—as has Gandhi’s salt march—of man demanding justice and discovering that justice first begins in his own heart” (Smith, “And Suddenly Something Happened” ). In January 1959 King wrote to Smith: “Of all the reviews that I have read on Stride Toward Freedom, I still consider yours the best” (King, 23 January 1959).