A Letter from Lillian Smith

A Letter from Lillian Smith

Edited by Rose Gladney

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 16-17

The letter below, written to the editors of the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION though it was never published there, is the fourth in a series from the correspondence of Lillian Smith. The letter did appear in the NEW YORK TIMES, June 6, 1954.

Smith’s strong position against racial segregation had been clearly established for more than a decade prior to the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling. What is significant about her stand against segregation, however, is not only her timing–that she spoke out as early as she did–but her perspective and depth of understanding. Because she saw racial segregation as symbolic and symptomatic of many other aspects of human nature and society, it is not surprising that her first public response to the BROWN decision would contain broad and far-reaching interpretations of the new law.

Her passing reference to the ruling as a “powerful political instrument against communism” was not a new argument for Smith or for many others who for years had

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pointed to the hypocrisy of America’s willingness to defend freedom abroad while blatantly denying the rights of citizenship to black Americans. At the same time, her use of anti-communist language reveals a certain blindness in Smith’s otherwise clear vision of the relationship between means and ends in any struggle for social change. Although she clearly intended to defuse the red-baiting tactics of those who called “communists” the Supreme Court and all others who worked to end racial segregation, her willingness to use the anti-communist rhetoric–even against itself–leaves her vulnerable to charges of feeding the very red-baiting she would otherwise deplore.

In the remainder of the letter, Smith’s strategy was brilliant. To call the Brown decision “every child’s Magna Carta” was at once to move the subject out of the realm of black versus white or federal government versus state and local school boards and to place it in the tradition of freedom for the individual that even the most staunchly Celtic descendant would have to revere. Simultaneously, she pushed beyond the stereotype of race by renaming skin color an “artificial disability” compared to “real disabilities” of physically or mentally disabled children.

Smith’s knowledge of the legal, social, and educational plight of differently abled Americans was grounded in extensive research. At the time of this letter, she and Paula Snelling were compiling materials for an anthology on the subject. Although never completed, the proposed book as outlined in correspondence with her publisher included autobiographical experiences of a number of differently abled people, a bibliography of resources, and a list of relevant state and federal laws.

Her perception that the BROWN decision would affect differently abled children as well as children of color was truly prophetic. Few, if any, of its defendants or opponents were even considering such far-reaching implications in 1954, yet educational historians now look to that decision as a major precedent for the extension of educational access to all children, culminating in the 1975 enactment of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

Smith’s confidence that “millions of other southerners” would “wholeheartedly” accept the challenge of the Brown decision reflected her basic educational strategy for social change. She believed that people would rise to the vision of their leaders; and she herself always tried to embody the vision she held for the South. She would develop this appeal and outline specific creative responses to court-ordered desegregation in her 1955 book NOW IS THE TIME.

Unfortunately, voices like Lillian Smith’s did not receive the media coverage given those who dissented loudly or even moderately, as did William Faulkner when he pleaded for the white South to be given a little more time. If in hindsight we wonder at Smith’s optimism in 1954, we must also acknowledge that her vision is being realized, that her prophecy came true.

To the Editors,*

The Atlanta Constitution

Atlanta, Georgia

Dear Sirs:

May 31, 1954

I have read, again, the recent decision of the Supreme Court. It bears rereading. For it is a great historic document–not only because its timing turns it into the most powerful political instrument against communism that the United States has, as yet, devised, but because of its profound meaning for children.

It is every child’s Magna Carta. All are protected by the magnificent statement that no artificial barriers, such as laws, can be set up in our land against a child’s right to learn and to mature as a human being.

There are, perhaps, 5 million children in the U.S.A. who are colored. There are close to 5 million other children who would be directly affected by this decision. I am not speaking, now, of “white children”-many of whom have undoubtedly been injured spiritually by the philosophy of segregation. I am speaking of disabled children:

Children who are “different,” not because of color but because of blindness, deafness; because they are crippled, or have cerebral palsy; because they have speech defects, or epilepsy, or are what we call “retarded.” These children we have also segregated.

There are more than 40 states with laws forbidding a child with epilepsy to attend public school–even though most children’s convulsions can now be controlled with modern drugs. Little blind children are segregated in schools from sighted children; our deaf from the hearing. Many cerebral palsy children are kept out of school not because they are unable to attend but because there are teachers who do not want to teach them. And yet, a basic principle of rehabilitation is that acceptance and a natural relationship with his human world is necessary for the disabled child, if he is to make a good life for himself.

All these children–some with real disabilities, others with the artificial disability of color–are affected by this great decision. Then why are so few politicians protesting so angrily? Perhaps because they feel THEY will now be handicapped if the old crutch of “race” is snatched away from them.

It is true: this decision may shackle a few politicians. But it frees so many of our children. I, for one, am glad. And I believe millions of other southerners are glad, also; and will accept wholeheartedly the challenge of making a harmonious, tactful change-over from one kind of school to another. It will be an ordeal only if our attitude makes it so; there are creative, practical ways of bringing about this change. And in the doing of it, we adults may grow, too, in wisdom and gentleness.

Sincerely yours,

Lillian Smith

*From a carbon copy in the Lillian Smith Papers, Special Collections, University of Georgia Libraries

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