1957, Maxine Atkins Smith's application to the graduate program at
Memphis State University was denied because of her race. That
circumstance propelled her into the forefront of the civil rights
movement in Memphis.
Mrs. Smith died April 26, 2013, at the age of 83.
She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis at age 15, obtained Bachelor's degree in biology from Spelman College in 1949, a Master's degree in French from Middlebury College. She taught French at Prairie View A&M University and at Florida A&M University. She also taught briefly at LeMoyne College in Memphis.
Maxine Smith was one of the most influential leaders in civil rights for African Americans in the Memphis area. She led boycots in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She walked school children to their schools when Memphis classrooms were first desegregated. For many years she held the position of executive secretary of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP and as such was perhaps the major voice for desgregation in Memphis.
In 1971 she became the first African American member of the city school board and in 1979 she orchestratged the choice of the first African American superintendent of schools in Memphis, Willie Herenton. She went on to be an important factor in his election as mayor of the city in 1991. Ms. Smith served on the Tennessee Board of Regents which oversees the regional and community college systems in the state.
Mrs. Smith was a 2003 recipient of the Freedom Award presented by the National Civil Rights Museum.