Keri Leigh Merritt “History Marker Honoring Lillian Smith”
Yesterday, the Lillian E. Smith Center unveiled a historical marker honoring Smith’s life. work, and legacy. I am still process this event and its impact because as the program commenced and went on, I found myself becoming overwhelmed with emotions, and I am still, right now, processing those thoughts. I plan to write about the ceremony in an upcoming post. Today, though, I want to share with you Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt’s remarks at the unveiling. Unfortunately, she could not attend, so I had to read them for her. Below, you will find her speech.
History Marker Honoring Lillian E. Smith
Thank you all so much for joining us today on this special occasion honoring one of Georgia’s most important — but unsung heroes. I am so happy that today rights the wrongs of the past in finally giving Lillian Smith the respect and admiration she so deeply deserves.
In March of 2020, the city of Decatur, Georgia commemorated the 1960 arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr., for driving with an expired license near Emory University in Atlanta. Just a few months later, that event would lead to King’s sentencing to hard labor following a subsequent arrest for a sit-in at a lunch counter in Atlanta, as well as an intervention by President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Many historians consider this singular event a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet one incredibly important part of the story was completely left off of the shiny new plaque in Decatur, just as it has been removed from much of our history. There was a reason the police officer had pulled King over in the first place, and it had nothing to do with traffic laws.
King had been driving with a white woman in his car. Her name was Lillian E. Smith, and she was a vocal antiracist and zealous integrationist. King and his wife, Coretta, had just finished lunch with Smith and were driving her to her cancer treatment at Emory hospital. When the officer pulled them over, he immediately recognized Smith as the “racial troublemaker” from the North Georgia mountains, and proceeded to arrest King on trumped up charges of an expired tag.