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Hoppe, Speck publish biography on civil rights activist

10/3/2006
Researched and written by the president and provost of Austin Peay State University, an authorized biography of Maxine Atkins Smith, focusing primarily on her role as a civil rights activist, will be published in 2007 by the University of Tennessee Press.

Dr. Sherry Hoppe, APSU president, and Dr. Bruce Speck, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, spent months conducting research and interviews, including several with Maxine Smith and her husband, Vasco, about her role in the civil rights movement.

The biography, tentatively titled “Maxine's Unwilling Pupils: Lessons Learned in Memphis' Civil Rights Classroom,” has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press.

The book paints a picture of this highly educated and extremely vocal woman and how her powerful personality expedited the civil rights movement in Memphis and surrounding areas.

After hearing Smith give an “armchair chat” at a TBR-sponsored celebration of the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Hoppe told Smith her story needed to be recorded and asked her if anyone had written a book about her life and her role in the civil rights movement in Memphis.

“Maxine told me, ‘Lots of people have said that, but no one has ever done it,'” Hoppe said. “I suggested that Austin Peay had a faculty member who might be interested, but when that did not work out, I asked Bruce Speck if he would co-author the biography with me.”

According to the biography, although Smith spoke out against unfair treatment of blacks in all arenas, her primary focus was on education. After being a leader in the successful integration of Memphis' elementary and high schools through such actions as the infamous “Black Mondays,”

Smith was elected to the Memphis School Board, where she served 24 years.

Although rejected for admission to the University of Memphis, Smith ultimately helped force the integration of the university. She also was involved when James Meredith broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi, hiding Meredith in her home the night before he enrolled.

Smith's active role in the civil rights movement also saw her with Medgar Evers the night before his death, and she was scheduled to have dinner with Martin Luther King Jr. the night he was killed.

For her work, Smith has received innumerable honors, such as being named to the National Civil Rights Museum Board of Directors. In 2003 she shared the dais with President Bill Clinton when both received National Civil Rights Freedom Awards, the highest honor bestowed by the National Civil Rights Museum. Past recipients included Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell.

The book about Smith, who served more than 12 years on the Tennessee Board of Regents before retiring in June 2006, chronicles her tireless and selfless struggles on behalf of fellow blacks, arguing that desegregation would not have progressed as quickly without the efforts of Smith and her husband.

Marcus D. Pohlmann, reviewer for the University of Tennessee Press, said “This book had to be written, given the Smiths' rank right up there with Boss Crump and W. W. Herenton in terms of their influence on Memphis politics and the city's socio-political development.

“(The book) makes a sizable contribution to our knowledge and to Tennessee literature…
The fact that (Hoppe and Speck) had the kind of access that allowed them such a rich interview base only makes it that much more of a contribution.”

After indicating the new book reflects “solid original scholarship” growing out of impressive original interviews and a well-researched document base, Pohlmann said, “I suspect the book will be broadly read and discussed both in and out of the classroom. (It) is accessible enough that it could well be adopted by high school courses and libraries as well as college courses and libraries.”

Hoppe's and Speck's book is the first published biography or autobiography of Maxine Smith, Tennessee civil rights leader, and according to the second reviewer, Bobby Lovett, the book is needed to fill the gapes in the historiography of the civil rights movement in Tennessee.

“The civil rights movement in Tennessee and its importance in the entire movement has been ignored heretofore in the nation's publications,” said Lovett. “Tennessee's female leaders, like Maxine, are not included in any of the books on the recent civil rights movement.”

In a Sept. 22, 2006, memo to the editorial board of the University of Tennessee Press, Pohlmann recommended that the book, which he called “an anthem to Maxine Smith and her work,” be accepted for publication. The recommendation was approved.

For more information, telephone Hoppe at (931) 221-7571 or Speck at (931) 221-7676. -- Dennie B. Burke