Maxine A. Smith


MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Maxine A. Smith, an influential Memphis civil rights leader, died Friday. She was 83.

Her death was confirmed by Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on his Facebook page.

Smith, retired executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP and a former city school board member, had chronic heart problems, according to The Commercial Appeal (

She was a part of every significant chapter in the city's storied history of race relations over half a century, from protest to integration to busing to the rise of black political power.

"Today we mourn the passing of civil rights icon, Maxine Smith," Wharton said on Facebook. "With her death, Memphis has lost a legendary leader for human rights and one of the brightest stars in the great expanse of our city's history."

"There is nobody like Maxine. She was an amazing woman with an ability to interact with all kinds of people, a brilliant strategist. ... A bove all, she was my friend," said Rep. Johnnie Turner, former executive director of the local NAACP chapter.

Georgia Maxine Atkins Smith was born in Memphis during the Depression at a time of rigid segregation.

As an adult, Smith set about changing the racial status quo. In the process, she and a generation of black Memphians including her husband, former County Commissioner Vasco Smith, changed the city forever with a knowledge of Memphis past and present that helped them make the transition from protesters to elected leaders.

Her father, Joseph Atkins, was a postal worker who chafed under the rules of workplace segregation. Her mother, Georgia R. Atkins, was active in the NAACP. Smith said as a child the NAACP was "almost like a church" to the family.

She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at the age of 15 and four years later graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta.

Smith earned her master's degree from Middlebury College in Mi ddlebury, Vermont, and taught college-level French.

The state of Tennessee paid her tuition to Middlebury rather than allow her to attend a white college or university here.

Seven years after getting her master's from Middlebury, Smith and Miriam DeCosta Willis tried to enroll in all-white Memphis State University and were turned away.

"I got mad and have been mad ever since," Smith recalled in a 1977 interview.

Smith and Willis filed suit against what is now the University of Memphis in 1957. Two years later, the first black students were admitted to the university, although Smith and Willis were not among the group.

Nearly four decades after that lawsuit, Smith was appointed a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing board for the U of M and all of the state's colleges and universities outside of the University of Tennessee system. She was appointed by then-governor Ned McWherter in 1994 and served to 2006. During her tenure, the board created a fellowship program and named it in her honor, the Maxine Smith Fellows program.


Information from: The Commercial Appeal,

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My dear great aunt, you are gone but never forgotten. I miss your bucket salad. Smile. The conversations we shared....priceless. My great uncle, your husband, was so proud of you and spoke highly of you. Now you all are taking your eternal rest together. Thank you for being a part of my life. Thank God for you both. Love you both. Rest in Paradise.


Your mom was a pioneer and a great inspiration in my life. She was my first boss when I was at the age of 18 at the NAACP office. She taught me to be professional, to have confidence and seek the equality that we as a race deserve. She will always be embedded in a special part of my heart.

Phyllis Walters

Our Prayer go out to you Smitty and your entire family always. Take comfort in knowing that you have a Special Guardian Angel watching overall of you. Your mother is "Safe in God's Arms".

Life is a blessing. When one has been so fulfilled as this beautiful woman, the joy is knowing another angel is watching over us. May God bless you.
(graduated class of 1974 Central High).

Smitty, I'm so sorry to hear about the lost of your mother. My condolences to you and your family. May God bless you during this time.

Such a wonderful woman. A positive influence for me growing up in Memphis. Rest in Paradise.

Sincere condolences to the family of the wonderful Maxine Smith. I sat in the
pew right behind Maxine
and Vasco the ten years
that I lived in Memphis.
They were among the first
members of Metropolitan
Baptist Church whom I
learned to like and love!
She was smart, funny, and a
great, principled, beautiful
lady. May she rest in peace.

Maxine Smith was our "Moses of Memphis." She understood that freedom was worth fighting for and gave her time, resources, and voice to the cause. We must never allow our children to forget what Maxine Smith meant to our city and nation.