October 31, 1929|
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
|Died||April 26, 2013(aged 83)|
|Burial place||Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis|
|Alma mater||Spelman College, Middlebury College|
|Occupation||Academic, school board official|
|Organization||National Association for the Advancement of Colored People|
|Known for||Activist in the American Civil Rights Movement|
|Spouse(s)||Vasco A. Smith, Jr.|
Smith's leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and her involvement with educational planning at both the local and state levels in Tennessee, enabled her to support the American Civil Rights Movement and advance school desegregation.
Smith was the youngest of three children of Joseph and Georgia Rounds Atkins. In 1945, at age 15, Smith graduated Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis. She earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1949, and a master's degree in French from Middlebury College in Vermont.
Smith became assistant professor of French at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, and then at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Smith then taught briefly at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
In 1957, Smith applied to pursue graduate studies at the University of Memphis, but was denied admission because she was black. This led Smith to become involved with the Memphis Branch of the NAACP. In 1962, Smith was named Executive Secretary of the branch, and continued in that role until her retirement in 1995.
In 1960, Smith assisted in desegregating Memphis public schools, and in 1961 Smith personally escorted the first 13 black children to their new desegregated schools. Through her leadership with the Memphis NAACP, Smith advocated for civil rights by organizing sit-ins, marches, lawsuits, voter registration drives, and student boycotts such as the "If You're Black, Take It Back" campaign to boycott downtown stores which had segregated water fountains and work forces.
In 1971, Smith was the first African-American elected to the Memphis Board of Education, a position she held until her retirement in 1995. Smith advocated for the promotion of school principal W. W. Herenton to the role of school superintendent in 1978, the first African-American to hold that position in Memphis. Smith later supported Herenton's successful bid to become mayor of Memphis.
In 1991, Smith was elected president of the Memphis Board of Education, a role she served for two terms, retiring in 1995. In 1994, Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter appointed Smith to the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing body for many public colleges and universities throughout the state.
Maxine Smith was the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, having served on the National Board of the NAACP and as the Executive Secretary of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP where she coordinated the desegregation of everything in Memphis from schools to lunch counters to theater seating, and libraries, as well as public accommodations and facilities. Maxine Smith was an unstoppable force during the Civil Rights Movement, not only in Memphis but across America.