Maxine Smith a Trailblazer for Civil Rights in Memphis

Maxine Smith a Trailblazer for Civil Rights in Memphis

The most famous and possibly the most influential civil rights leader in Memphis history has died. Maxine Smith was 83 years old.
MEMPHIS, TN ( - The most famous and possibly the most influential civil rights leader in Memphis history has died. Maxine Smith was 83 years old.

She led the NAACP through some of its toughest times in the sixties. She also served on the Memphis City School Board.

As Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey said when learning of her death, he will miss her smile and her iron backbone in fighting for the victims of racism.

"When I heard the news, the thing that occurred to me mostly was, oddly enough, was that wonderful smile she always carried. She never had a scowl for anybody. There was always that warm, Maxine loving Smith."

Maxine Smith was a woman who fought during a time when men ruled this city - she stood up to all of them. Even the late Mayor Henry Loeb, a man whose attitudes led to the sanitation workers strike fifty years ago, respected her.

Maxine Smith simply was one of those people who gave a damn.

Smith's longtime friend and lawyer, Ruby Wharton, had trouble announcing the news that a piece of Memphis had passed away.

"It is with deepest sorrow that we announce on behalf of the family the passing of a true warrior, trailblazer, and civil rights pioneer, Maxine Smith."

Maxine Smith wasn't willing to accept things as they were, because they were wrong. She fought hard for the rights of African Americans, which wasn't easy in Memphis - not in the 1950's or 1960's. Memphis was a city filled with hate for those people of color.

"I remember riding in the back of the bus. I remember drinking water from separate water fountains marked colored and white. I remember being run down alleyways by policemen," recalled former Memphis Mayor Dr. Willie Herenton. "Yes, this was a mean, southern backwards city, Memphis."

It was in this atmosphere where Maxine Smith thrived. She organized marches, boycotts against downtown stores, and voting drives. Things would not remain the same; this would not be a mean, southern backwards city, not if she and a handful of others had anything to do with it.

Bailey said, "Maxine was the true trailblazer, a pioneer in the civil rights movement. Most of the gains and accomplishments that we enjoy today would not be experienced but for Maxine Smith."

She also loved children. As member of the Memphis City School Board for years, she said her greatest accomplishment was getting Dr. Herenton named as city school superintendent.

In recent years, especially following the death of her husband Vasco Smith, she slowed down. Her health started to deteriorate.

Just last week, current NAACP local head, Madeline Taylor, visited Smith for what would turn out to be the last time.

"As I was leaving, I said, 'Let me hold your hand.' I said, 'Oh, your hand is strong, you're doing well.' She said, 'Oh, I'm alright.' And I was pleased to hear that because I knew she was fighting and struggling."

Maxine Smith's fighting and struggling ended early on a Friday morning, but those who knew her would say the battles in society are far from over.

"We who are still remaining know that there's still a mission. There's still a purpose. There's still a reason. And we must carry on," Wharton said. "And I think Maxine would want that."

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

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