The Winner Names the Age
Lillian Smith was in her late forties when she achieved nationwide attention for her novel Strange Fruit (1944), in which she told the story of love shared by a black woman and a white man. Attention at first was on the quality of the book, but it quickly changed to focus on the fact that the author, a white woman of Southern birth and upbringing, had dared to pull aside the curtain (some would say conspiracy) of silence which her region had maintained on the subject of segregation. The present volume is an important addition to her published writings because it reveals for a general audience how Strange Fruit was but one phase of Lillian Smith’s decades-long work to help bring about desegregation in her native region.
In a talk given on April 27, 1961, to the Students Colloqium of Emory University, Lillian Smith told her audience, young Southerners enrolled at a Southern university, that one of the most important existential questions of their time was the question of segregation. She told the young people how she, like all Southerners, had been hurt by segregation, beginning in early childhood, when she learned that she could not choose her friends from among the black people, that she had to give them the back-door treatment which humiliated herself as well as those on whom it was imposed. The second way in which she was hurt, she said, was when she felt the split in her mind caused by racial segregation. She learned that it is difficult to believe in segregation and freedom at the same time. She came to see that talk of human dignity and the brotherhood of man did not square with talk of white supremacy. The third way in which segregation hurt her was through her recognition of how it shamed and hurt black people inwardly. Smith also reported that it was years later, when she was a teacher in China and saw a white policeman beat a Chinese coolie, that she realized segregation was brutalizing people. She saw that segregation was based on a mob mentality which, without control imposed by reason, compassionate love, conscience, and knowledge, can easily destroy us by leading us to commit destructive actions against what we fear.
Part I of The Winner Names the Age consists of writings in which Lillian Smith speaks to her fellow Southerners, such as her talk to the students at Emory University. The editor has arranged these eight selections in chronological order so that they give a record of Smith’s opposition to segregation from 1942 until her death in 1966. Some of the writings appeared earlier in print. For example, the first selection, “Are We Not All Confused,” appeared in 1942, shortly after the country’s plunge into World War II, in the little magazine South Today. The magazine was founded by Lillian Smith in 1936 and was published until 1945 under her direction, growing from twelve pages and twenty-seven subscribers to 110 pages and 10,000 subscribers. In her Preface to The Winner Names the Age, Paula Snelling states that South Today was an early and important stimulus for both whites and blacks in the South who questioned and even confronted the status quo of segregation.
In a way, the entire book speaks, of course, to the South, but the materials included in Part I do not have the significance for a wider audience that the materials in the second and third parts do. Certain specific points are noted over and over again in these writings as hurts for all people, but especially for children. Segregation kept all children, white as well as black, from achieving their possibilities of growth. Lillian Smith also states many times that she sees the mob as a three-part phenomenon: the obvious mob of the Ku Klux Klan, the mob which operates from behind the scenes and sustains the first mob with its economic and cultural leadership; and the mob which exists in men’s minds. But perhaps the most important point which Lillian Smith reiterated over the years was that the South was not monolithic in its support of segregation; contrary to the stereotype, there were tens of thousands of...
(The entire section is 1667 words.)