Remarks in Memory Of Lillian Smith
By Gene Gabriel Moore
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1982, pp. 13-15
It is appropriate that we make what echo we can of Lillian Smith’s lifelong battle for those eternal lost causes–a classless society, uncompromised equality, and a democracy undiluted by the greed of corporations, by the saber rattling of the jingoists, by the cynicism of the politicians.
Today, perhaps more than at any time since the repressive measures of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, during the height of the antiwar movement, we Americans are the victims of a regressive regime whose threat to our common inheritance, to the rights we were promised that summer in 1776, is multiplied by the fact that it is the national government on the Potomac, not a motley cadre of slack-jaw demagogues down in old Dixie that seems unwilling to translate into the realities of this century the principles of Thomas Jefferson, of Thomas Paine, of Martin Luther King, Jr.
How do you characterize an administration whose priorities are blatantly in favor of the pitifully deprived rich–and blatantly against a child suffering from malnutrition, blatantly against that old woman in a head ag trudging beside the blacktop in Bolivar County, Miss., blatantly against the hopes of barely literate students in some woebegone high school in Monroe County, Ala., blatantly against warming the bones of the elderly in Terrell County Gal, when the cold of winter creeps into their houses?
They can be characterized only as classist, racist, as dangerous to the health of this nation and, heaven help us suicidal to the state of the world–because whatever the Russians are, they are neither weak nor easily cowed, a fact which should not cause Americans to quake in fear but it should give us pause. There is no winner in a nuclear exchange. There is no world left for a winner.
We are not sleeping sheep. We are not so much in love with the upholstery in our sedans. We are not so tied to the feasts on our tables. We are not so adorned and pampered and sweetsmelling and satisfied that we will allow the Reagan people to distort and lessen the nobility and the humanity and the morality of this nation. Look closely at the rhetoric of the Reaganites. Look very closely. For you and I and our countrymen are in trouble.
Lillian Smith knew about trouble.
Lillian Smith did not rest in the shade. Lil did not lollygag. She did not hem and hew. She told the bigots in her midst to take themselves on the short road to hell. She spelled out in language that rings with lyricism just how close to hellfire those bigots were, how rotted their souls were.
It was the day of the lynching tree, that day when Lil and Paula Snelling started their magazine in my mother’s own sweet county of Rabun. Lil stood up and she told the Talmadges and the Bilbos and the Rankins and the Heflins and the Byrds and the Longs and the Crumps and the Stennises that their ways were the ways of ruin and corrosion–and she did her telling in the face of ever-constant risk to herself. And you can be sure that those who disagreed with her–and they were most of the people on this continent, including some who knew better, who should have been her natural allies–were quick to threaten, to attack, to harass, to accuse. The ring of the phone in the night was a fearsome thing on Old Screamer Mountain.
From Southern trees hang strange fruit. The line is from a Billy Holiday song, but the words became Lil Smith’s–and the novel Strange Fruit awakened the conscience of the Nation. Lil hastened the dawn, as Dabbs said. Her first book gave her an audience. It established her as a serious artist, as a writer of large gift, as a thinker influenced not only by the ancient storytelling traditions of her own Southern origins but also by Gandhi, by Freud, by the music that had been an integral part of her life since girlhood in Jasper, Florida.
Lil was short in stature, but she wasn’t afraid to stand up and let her words be heard. They were clear words and her message was persuasive and it was heard not only in Cairo, Gal, but also in Cairo, Egypt–not only in Vienna, Gal, but also in Vienna, Austria–not only in Macon, Gal, but also in Macon, France.
For a generation of Southerners, Lillian Smith provided the words that had not been heard in the states of the old Confederacy because overlaying our reach of the world was a certain silence. It’s a terrible sleep when you can’t wake up, Lil said. It was an evil silence. It was an evil imposed upon the brains of white infants in the crib. It was an evil enforced in the bosom of the family. It was an evil ratified by lawmakers. And it was, as all great evils are, as has been said by a chronicler of another evil in this century, utterly banal.
Lil was a white woman. She was a feminist before the word won broad currency, a thinker to the left of center. She was all those things–and she was a Protestant Southerner. She was all those things–but in the main Lillian Smith was a writer. I am a writer, she said to me in a letter. How others see me is how they see me. I see myself as a writer.
I see by the papers that there are biographers at work on lives of Lillian Smith. and it can only be hoped that they will bracket their approach to Lil’s life and work with that fact clearly in focus. She was a writer. It is too convenient to critics, to the media, to her enemies and even to her friends to characterize Lil as a propagandist–certainly a talented one, but a propagandist nevertheless.
I cannot imagine taking Lil’s message to her homeland out of an account of her life, but the fact is that the woman
put one word after another in a way that celebrates the language and advances our understanding of literature’s higher role in the human experience. She did not use words merely as a means of transporting to distant corners the particulars of her philosophy. She used words as a poet uses words, and there are exceedingly poetic, lyrical reaches in her work. That is especially true in her nonfiction–in Killers of the Dream, in The Journey, and that small masterpiece, Memory of a Large Christmas.
Even in casual correspondence, in her letters to friends and acquaintances, Lillian Smith made art. It is too easily overlooked, the art of Lillian Smith; it is too easily nudged aside in our rush to commemorate Lil’s courage, Lil’s early and often lonely crusade against the base instincts of the species. We must never diminish Lil’s stature as an artist. She gave us in her two published novels and in her two major works of nonfiction literature which reveals our human depth and reach and nobility and foibles and angst. Just as Lil instructed young Martin King, then hardly more than a country preacher down in Alabama, on the fine lines of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience . . . she gave us a body of fiction and nonfiction which possesses the stuff of important literature.
My first encounter with Lillian Smith was Killers of a Dream. That book gave questioning feelings in me the words needed for me to discover answers. Multiply my experience by ten thousand and extend it into the next generation, as I have tried to do with my own children, and you begin to catch the impact which that brave woman on the mountain has had in our wondrous stretch of the planet.
We can expect no more than one Faulkner in a century, perhaps in two centuries. We can hope for no more than one O’Neill in a hundred years. A language can hope for no mare than one Eliot in a half-century. And whatever the challenges faced by our society in these closing years of the twentieth century–and they are true challenges–we cannot reasonably expect there to emerge a poet of Lillian Smith’s gift–a Lillian Smith to pit eloquence against the slick Hollywood rhetoric of the manipulators. We can expect no more than one Lil Smith, and she was here and she is gone.
I know well what the life and spirit of Lillian Smith represents–the transcendence of the artist over the unspeakable atrocities of her time. She was the word made fire. She was the writer who possessed the indissoluble courage to say “no.” She was the artist who loved the South with all her heart, but knew in her heart that the South was both glorious and completely wrong. She was the kind of Southern writer I tried to learn from and emulate–the kind who would throw up if they wrote Gone With The Wind.
I never cared that Scarlett O’Hara went hungry in the Civil War, in fact, I was glad. Because Scarlett O’Hara, and those fierce, abiding citizens like her, came out of that War and created the South to which I was born. Scarlett was true to her promise and rebuilt Tara and never went hungry again. Nor did she give a damn that millions of Southerners, black and white, would be hungry from the time they were born until the time they died. Give me Lillian Smith; let who will take Margaret Mitchell. Give me Nat Turner over Rhett Butler. Let me walk the long miles with Harriet Tubman instead of listening to Uncle Remus. Let me write love letters to the Grimke sisters of Charleston and say thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Allow me to tell General Lee that I’m delighted he lost the war and that I loathe any man, no matter how refined or cultured, who kills other men in defense of slavery. Thank General Sherman for me, for burning Atlanta, the city of my birth, the city I love, because slavery could only end in a blaze of horror and fire. Put a rose on the grave of Martin Luther King for me. Apologize for me that I once hated his guts and called him rigger. I was a white boy raised in the South and he will understand. Tell him it was people like him, people like Medgar Evers, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Will Campbell, Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff and hundreds of others who made me look in the mirror.
When I looked in the mirror I saw Bull Connor, George Wallace, Birmingham, Selma, separate drinking fountains, fire hoses, and blood in the streets. I saw the whole bruised tragic history of the South in those Southern blue eyes. In the mirror I was seeing myself for the first time as an enemy of the family of man. When I was a teenager the South was at war again, but the most splendid and magnificent warriors in the history of America carried no weapons into battle. They carried only a single word, “Freedom,” and all the guns of the South, all the troops and all the sheriffs, all the governors and fine Senators, all the armies of the Klan and the death squads from the Virginias to Mississippi learned something of the magic and the grandeur of the English language. They were defeated by that one glorious word. I wish I had been old enough or wise enough to have used that word in my childhood, but Scarlett O’Hara and I were at the country club working on our tans when the horses stormed across the Selma Bridge.
I grew up in the South and I hated riggers and Jews–in fact, I think I hated everybody. I brought remarkable skills to the art of hating. But I was granted a gift when I was taught the alphabet at Sacred Heart School on Courtland Street in Atlanta in 1950. I was taught to read and I learned to listen to the language. The learning of the alphabet began a slow revolution in my soul. I could hate riggers until Eugene Norris, a white English teacher in Beaufort, S.C., made me read Richard Wright and James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen and James Baldwin. I could hate Jews until the same teacher made me read The Diary of Anne Frank. I could hate everyone until synagogues were bombed, black girls were killed in church, and men and women were firehosed and bitten by dogs, beaten and clubbed at bus stations, and murdered and buried in levees in Mississippi. They taught me how to feel. Then they taught me to write and I learned that all writing is worthless without feeling; all writing is worthless without passion and faith.
In the late Sixties I became one of those tiresome Southern white changelings. You know the type. Blacks grew weary of the type very quickly, but I was irrepressible in those quickstepping days and my calling to the priesthood of civil rights, as I saw it, was to make my white brothers and sisters understand the spiritually crippling malady of racial prejudice. Always fear the convert–and at the same time I was one of the most zealously obnoxious converts to the cause of civil rights I ever encountered. I’m sure I did much accidental harm to the movement. I was perfectly ridiculous. It was at this moment in history I volunteered to teach on Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina during the first year of teacher integration. This was 1969 and it now seems a
thousand years ago. I had once argued persuasively with yankee classmates that the South had separate but equal school systems and still rather believed it on the day I reached the island. On the first day of school I learned that not one child in grades five through eight knew what country they lived in and my education as a Southerner was complete. I have never heard one Southern politician from Strom Thurmond to George Wallace to Herman Talmadge admit that they were monstrous, unconscionable liars when they claimed the separate but equal doctrine. They were all liars. I loathe them to this day because I once believed them. And they never had the grace to recant. They never even had the common decency to say they were wrong.
In closing, I want to tell you that the Great American South will never exist and it will always be waiting to be born. Dreams are almost never born; they are gently urged along. The Southern Regional Council has done much of this quiet gentle urging. You are desperately needed; you are required. Because of President Reagan and his administration the Southern poor and the American poor will suffer grievously. There will be hunger and sadness in the land again, in the world again.
The articles below were excerpted from speeches delivered at the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel on Nov. 6, when the 1981 Lillian Smith Awards for literature were presented by the Southern Regional Council.
The annual awards recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books about the South. The 1981 winners were Pat Conroy for Lords of Discipline and John Gaventa for Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.
Atlanta writer Gene Gabriel-Moore delivered the keynote remarks.
Pat Conroy currently lives and works in Rome, Italy, and could not be present for the Smith Awards banquet. He sent his remarks, excerpted here, to Bernie Schein, who make the speech on Conroy’s behalf.