Lillian Smith – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Lillian Smith was one of the first prominent white Southerners to openly denounce racial segregation and actively work against the entrenched and often brutally imposed world of Jim Crow. As early as the 1930s, she argued that Jim Crow was evil (“Segregation is spiritual lynching,” she said) and that it leads to social and moral decay.

Literary works

Smith gained national recognition – and regional denunciation – by writing strange fruit (1944), a daring novel of illicit interracial love. Five years later, she launched another thunderbolt against racism in Killers of the dream

(1949), a brilliant psychological and autobiographical work warning that segregation corrupts the soul; removed all possibility of freedom and decency in the South; and had serious implications for women and children, especially in their view of sex, their bodies and their innermost selves. From her home in Clayton, atop Old Screamer Mountain, she openly called interracial meetings and toured the South, speaking to people of all races and classes. She was ruthless in her criticism of “liberals” and “moderates” like Atlanta’s famed Ralph McGill and refused to join groups such as the Southern Regional Council until he could oppose the segregation and racism. In her own psyche, she struggled with intensely conflicting desires: to write creatively, to follow the passions of her heart, or to respond to her stern conscience and the intellectual voice of duty.

Smith’s writings, investigative tours of the South, and interracial conferences were signs that intellectual and social change was brewing in the South. By the time the civil rights movement made its dramatic debut in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955, Smith had met or corresponded with many Southern blacks and concerned whites for years and was knowledgeable about the conditions in which African Americans lived, and their anger and frustration. She corresponded with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and publicly admired his work. She remained faithful to him until his death. Smith hailed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling banning school segregation as “every child’s Magna Carta.” The following year she wrote The time has come, a leaflet demanding respect for the High Court’s decision. His other writings were diverse – from The trip (1954), a book of autobiographical reflections and social commentary based on a driving tour of coastal Georgia she took in 1952, for One o’clock (1959), an attack on McCarthyism thinly disguised as a novel.


Lillian Eugenia Smith was born into a large and prosperous family in Jasper, Florida on December 12, 1897. When the family business collapsed in 1915, her family moved to their cottage in Clayton, Rabun County, and started the Laurel Falls Girls Camp. Smith studied at Piedmont College (now the University of Piedmont) in Demorest (1915-16) then left to help run the family camp. Continuing her great love of music, she also made two stays at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland (1917, 1919). In 1922, she traveled to China to give music lessons at a Methodist mission school. When her parents’ health began to fail in 1925, she returned home and eventually took over the running of the camp, which she transformed over time into a place for serious discussion of social issues. Her longtime partner Paula Snelling, a school counselor, helped her.

Lillian Smith

In 1936, the two founded Pseudopodia, a small magazine intended to promote their ideals and to give Southern writers, including Southern blacks, a forum. After several name changes, including south today, Smith closed the successful magazine in 1945 to devote himself to writing. Unfortunately, none of his books have reached the emotional power of his controversial novel. strange fruit or the intellectual and psychological depths of The dream killers. She battled cancer from the early 1950s until her death in 1966, but until the end she remained dedicated to her dream of a South free from the “ghosts” of Southern traditions. His last published work was Our faces, our words (1964), which applauded nonviolence in the civil rights movement.

Lillian Smith

Arguably, Smith’s time in China, where she witnessed prejudice, oppression, and constant violations of her early Christian principles, compelled her to become an outspoken social critic. But she was not religious and did not call herself religious. She read the giants of intellectual modernism (namely Freud) with great passion and quoted modernist writers (Henri Bergson, Carl Jung and Paul Tillich among others) in her attack on prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Her own sexual orientation and personal life gave her a clear existential understanding (she read most of the leading existentialists of her day) of what it meant to be part of a despised minority considered deviant and dangerous by many.


On the whole, Smith’s neighbors were polite to her, but she knew what many Southerners thought of her and could decipher the ugliness of the expression, uttered by Eugene Talmadge, that strange fruit was a “literary corncob”. Fred Hobson wrote that Lillian Smith “was not afraid to face darkness within Southern and American society – racial, sexual and political. She was, in the finest sense of the word, a moralist, an absolutist , one of the last voices of all or nothing. Although her fame has declined since her death, she was one of the first significant voices of the civil rights movement in the American South, one of the first white southern writers to confront the evils of racism and injustice in a frank and uncompromising way.

Smith was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement in 1999 and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2000.

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