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This Day in Georgia History

December 12, 1897

Lillian Smith Born

Author and civil rights advocate Lillian Smith was born in Jasper, Florida. When she was 17, her family moved to Clayton, Georgia. Raised in a typical southern household, Smith seems an unlikely candidate for civil rights activity. But in the early 1920s she spent three years teaching music at a missionary school in China, where she faced the realities of racism. Upon returning home to Georgia, she began a long, productive career in writing and advocating for civil rights. She studied intermittently at several schools, but family duties prevented her from receiving a formal degree, yet her natural curiosity led her to become a student of history, anthropology, philosophy, religion, and literature. While her social and intellectual ideas had already begun to form much earlier, they took on a clearer expression in 1936 with the publication of Pseudopodia, a small magazine she edited with her companion Paula Snelling. This magazine, under various titles, was published until 1945, and served as a vehicle for expression for those who wanted social change in the South, and was the only regional journal to publish and review the work of black writers. In 1944 Smith published her first, and most noted, novel - Strange Fruit, a searing account of the South’s racist and sexist traditions as she viewed them. Similar themes were explored in her autobiographical work Killers of the Dream, published in 1949. These books made her a popular figure on the lecture circuit, particularly during the 1960s amid the civil rights movement. She received the Georgia Writer’s Association Award in 1954 for her nonfiction piece The Journey. Her second novel, One Hour (1959), was a literary indictment of the hysteria generated in the McCarthy era. Least controversial of her works was Memory of a Large Christmas (1962), which lovingly told of her memories of the large family gatherings of her youth. Smith remained a part of the civil rights movement, even though she suffered from a long bout with cancer the last thirteen years of her life. Ever believing in non-violent social change, she sent a telegram from her death bed resigning from the Congress of Racial Equality when they decided to take a more militant stand. Smith’s last book, Our Faces, Our Words (1964), was a pictorial work about southerners amidst the civil rights movement. Smith died in Atlanta on September 28, 1966.