Executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP for over forty years, Maxine Smith was born in Memphis on October 31, 1929. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis at the age of fifteen, received her A.B. degree in biology from Spelman College (Atlanta) in 1949, and a master’s degree in French in 1950 from Middlebury College in Vermont. Ironically, this civil rights leader attended Middlebury College because the University of Tennessee would not admit her–or any other African American student. The state did, however, cover her expenses at Middlebury College as an alternative.
What propelled Smith into the eye of the civil rights storm was her rejection by Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) when she and Miriam Sugarmon Willis applied to do graduate work there in 1957. Memphis State’s decision met with thunderous resistance from both Smith and Willis and they vowed to fight. Smith became active in the Memphis NAACP, serving as volunteer executive secretary. She coordinated sit-ins, protests, and voter registration drives.
One who pushed integration, she organized the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” campaigns boycotting downtown stores that would not integrate their work force. In 1961 she helped escort thirteen black first-graders who desegregated four white public schools. By 1962 she was the executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP. There was much work to be done. Many restaurants, theaters, and stores in Memphis were either closed to blacks or allowed them only limited access. Employment opportunities essentially did not exist in white-owned and -operated companies. Department stores like Gerber’s did not allow blacks to try on the clothes they were buying. Moreover, severe restrictions were placed on blacks’ use of certain public facilities, including the zoo, lunch counters, drinking fountains, restrooms, parks, and playgrounds.
Because the Memphis City Schools remained largely segregated and were slow to change, Smith was at the forefront of Black Mondays, school boycotts initiated in 1969 to force the issue of total integration of all aspects of the Memphis City Schools. Many students, teachers, and principals stayed out of school. This effort resulted in the restructuring of the school board into district representation that led to the election of African Americans to the board.
In 1971 Smith took advantage of this restructuring and ran for and won a seat on the Memphis School Board. She was board president 1991-92 and served the school board until 1995. While on the board, she saw to it that an African American, Dr. W. W. Herenton, was named superintendent of the Memphis City Schools in 1978.
Prominent in social circles in the black community, Smith is a member of the Memphis Chapter of Links and the Memphis Smart Set and was a member of the Memphis Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, all organizations of well-to-do African Americans. She is a member of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.