A Letter from Lillian Smith

A Letter from Lillian Smith

Edited by Rose Gladney

Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 27-28

The following is the third in a series of letters selected from the correspondence of Lillian Smith This issue’s selection (from a carbon copy in the Lillian Smith Papers at Emory University) is from a letter to the Board of Directors of the Committee from Georgia, which was a state affiliate of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW).

Organized in 1938 as a coalition of Southern liberals representing farmers, labor, politicians, educators, youth, journalists and other professionals, SCHW advocated wide ranging reforms from improved labor conditions and expansion of Farm Security Administration Programs to uniform federal and state voter registration procedures and federal aid to education. Today it is remembered primarily for its work to abolish the poll tax. As a delegate to SCHW’s 1940 annual convention, Lillian Smith expressed high hopes for the organization whose racially integrated membership she saw as symbolic of a changing South. She served as a member of its executive committee from 1942 to 1945. Described as the Conference’s “strongest gadfly, ” Smith consistently pushed for it to be more inclusive in its membership, more democratic in its practices, more responsive to the needs of rural people and more outspoken against racial segregation. With regret she resigned from her position on the executive committee in May 1945 because she felt the organization had grown narrowly political and controlled by a small faction of ideologues. However, she continued to support the goals of the Conference and served on the board of directors of its Georgia affiliate in 1946 and 1947.

The Committee for Georgia was one of the most active of the state-wide organizations of SCHW. In his study of SCHW (And Promises to Keep, Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), Thomas Krueger noted that the Committee for Georgia “sponsored two test suits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s county unity system, helped secure an equitable proportion of a school bond issue for Negro schools (increasing the Negro schools’ share from $1 million to $4 million), and worked quietly against Eugene Talmadge during the gubernatorial race of 1946.” Both test-quits failed, and, because of the county unit system (despite a popular vote lead of 9,661) James V. Carmichael lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Eugene Talmadge. With a record breaking count of 100,000Negro votes in that election, Talmadge promised: “No Negro will vote in Georgia for the next four years.” Furthermore, although Eugene Talmadge died in December 1946 before his inauguration, the Talmadge forces put his son Herman in the state house and refused to relinquish their position until the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lt. Governor elect, Melvin E. Thompson.

Primarily because of financial difficulties, both SCHW and the Committee for Georgia folded after 1947. However, Lillian Smith continued to advocate her psychocultural critique in political campaigns from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson. Always her political involvement included not only working for a specific candidate but, more importantly, trying to educate both the candidate and the public to a more holistic and long-range view of political issues. Her intense interest in child psychology and psychoanalysis informed not only her understanding of racism but her entire political analysis. Significantly, she repeatedly appealed to women, church leaders and journalists to exercise their power as moulders of public opinion; she always could translate her long-range philosophical perspective into concrete practices.

As with so many of her letters, this one seems uncomfortably timely to contemporary readers.

June 3, 1946

Dear Fellow Members:

I have been asked to go to India on the American Famine Mission at the invitation and expense of the Government of India. We leave by plane on June 1 7th. Until then I am so rushed that I cannot come to our board meeting. I am disappointed. But perhaps you will let me say a few things that are on my mind:

I am haunted these days by a little theme that says itself again and again in my mind: The campaign may be more important to Georgia than the election. Politics is a game over which we get excited and this is a race calculated to raise anybody’s blood pressure. With Talmadge smearing poison wherever his voice can be heard, we take sides, and should. Most of you here will agree that Carmichael will make us a better governor than either of the others. Most of us are going to work for his election. Nevertheless, it may be that the campaign will be far more important in its effect upon our state than the man who is elected. After all, though we live in Georgia, we also live in the United States. No matter who our Governor is, we shall still have a certain protection.

But even the Constitution of the United States cannot protect us and our children from the hate microbes that Talmadge is scattering now from end to end of our state.

Lately, I have been thinking of children. Of white and colored children, sitting at radios hearing his words, reading them in the paper, listening to their elders talk. White children swelling with arrogance over having a white skin; colored children shamed to the bone over being “colored.” White children overhearing “nigger” jokes…colored children overhearing bitter reactions from their folks. It is not a good thing to think about.

We know also that 10 percent of our population are mentally ill or on the fringe of illness. They are people unable to cope adequately with their fears and guilts. Talmadge’s words open a window within their sick hearts, giving a direction in which they may turn their hats–and without consciences hurting. We know too, that a lot of hate that once released itself on Germany and Japan is now back home again. Free-floating hate, just waiting for somewhere

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to turn; somebody to attach itself to.

Our state which we all love so much is fertile soil for Talmadge’s words. And he knows it. He knows the loneliness of farms. . . the emptiness of the small town. . . the bitterness and lack of love in so many homes, and he is capitalizing on our weaknesses. He has appraised our spiritual and cultural and economic deficits and is exploiting them for his and his gang’s advantage.

And we are letting him do it. We sit here and let him go up and down the state spreading germs of hate everywhere. Scattering bacteria over radio. If a mad man scattered germs by plane, he would be imprisoned. But Talmadge is free. I am not saying that he should have his civil liberties taken from him though I think the day will come when men will not be free to spread hate. I think the day will come when their madness will be recognized and they will be put into hospitals–not prisons–for treatment.

But today, what can we do? I think we can do plenty. I think we can inoculate against these germs. I think we can use vaccines to counteract this poison. Maybe Mr. Carmichael has to talk about leaning on Southern Tradition. We don’t have to. And we mustn’t. We are making Southern Tradition, not leaning on it. And folks who make things have to get busy and work. We should get in touch with Negro citizens throughout the state and let them know that white Georgians, hundreds of white Georgians, thousands of white Georgians are working with them for human decency, for the chance of Georgia children to grow. We must let them know that we want for all Georgia children the same things that we want for white children. No more, no less.

I wonder how many of us who are white have any idea what Talmadge’s talk does to Negro nerves. There is no way we can measure the hopelessness it creates, the desperation it breeds. A “white” imagination cannot embrace so much pain.

But it does as bad things to white folks. And this is what we must find the way to tell the people of Georgia. We must let them know…we must make them understand how arrogance cripples a white child, just as shame cripples a colored child. We must persuade them to understand that when we discriminate against any human being, we discriminate against all human beings. We want white children to be human to Negroes, to all people. These things we must find a way of saying. One way is through the Georgia press, in the letter columns. A hundred well-known women could write such letters to the Georgia papers. Though it is not customary for Southern women to write letters to the press, I believe they would do it, if they realized the good they might do.

The harm now is in silence.

I think every minister in the state of Georgia should be approached, not politically, but from the point of view of the harm this kind of talk does to growing children, how it promotes delinquency and lawlessness, how it spreads hate and unrest among white and colored. I think we might persuade a group of church women to take over this project of writing to all ministers and appealing to them to stem the tide of hate and fear and arrogance. I think a man like Bishop Arthur Moore might be chairman of such a group, with ministers from other denominations working with him. But would he?

I think we could get nursery school teachers and social workers to help on this. For delinquency is tied up so closely with the hate talk and with racial arrogance and racial shame. If we could convince the people of Georgia that Talmadge is waging warfare against the emotional growth of children, we could get new allies on our side. Most white people do not think they and their children are harmed by racial discrimination. They think if they work for racial democracy, that they are working for Negroes. Our job is to convince them that they are working for themselves and their children’s future.

I hope that we shall work in Georgia not only on political and economic levels but I hope that we shall make of the Georgia Committee a strong cultural force in our state. I want us to plow deeply…Not all our misery in Georgia is caused by poverty and unemployment; not all of it is caused by having the wrong men in office. Not all of it is even caused by poor health. Our ideas of child- guidance, of rearing children, our attitudes toward sex, toward scientific knowledge of human relations have such a profound effect upon people and upon the security of the whole earth today. The haters will always find someone to hate, whether hater be rich or hater be poor. We must reduce the need to hate; and learn “sanitary ways” of using our hate–what children in my camp call “emotional toilet habits.” Some of the poor and ignorant have great understanding and wisdom; and we all know Ph.D.’s as immature as children. So education isn’t the answer either unless our emotions are educated. Facts are fine tools to use; but emotions are the driving force behind those tools. That is why I am so anxious for us to work on our mental hospitals, and to establish mental hygiene clinics throughout the state. This more indirect, but fundamental approach to our racial and economic and political problems may in the end prove to be the best and most efficient way to work. I know we cannot do much with this until after election.

Sincerely yours, Lillian Smith

Rose Gladney is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.