When Maxine Smith was born in Memphis in 1929, the city was segregated by race.
Smith graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at age 15. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta, where she knew Martin Luther King, Jr., who had also graduated high school early and was attending the nearby Morehouse College.
“He was a nerd,” Smith recalled years later.
Smith earned a Master’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont and taught college level French.
In 1957, Smith applied to a graduate program at the all-white University of Memphis, then called Memphis State University. She was denied because of her race. Smith said that rejection spurred her to get involved with the NAACP, “I just did what I thought was the right thing. What my adrenaline forced me to do.”
Smith served as the executive secretary for the Memphis chapter of the NAACP from 1962 until 1995, and she helped organize the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis in 1968.
In 1971, after years of protesting the establishment, Smith became the first African-American elected to the Memphis City Schools Board of Education. In 2003, she and former President Bill Clinton stood on a stage together and were awarded the prestigious Freedom Award by the National Civil Rights Museum; and in 2010, she received an honorary doctorate degree from the university that once rejected her.
That year, Smith spoke at the University of Memphis’ commencement ceremony wearing a cap and gown, and she noted changes to the admissions building, both philosophical and architectural, “I’m glad you took the high steps off, because it was a long walk up to be rejected…but today I’m receiving the highest degree that Memphis, the University of Memphis can give. I’m so proud,” Smith said to loud applause.
“I wish all of you the very best in life,” Smith told the graduates that day. “There’s still lots of work to be done. And this is all our world. So make sure you do your part. I see the glimmer, the gleam in your eyes. I know you will.”
Smith died today. She was 83.