Lillian Smith and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Matthew Teutsch
10 min readJul 24, 2020

On February 4, 1968, two months before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered “The Drum Major Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church. During the sermon, King pointed out that the drum major instinct can lead to “tragic race prejudice.” On this point, he continued, “Many have written about this problem — Lillian Smith used to say it beautifully in some of her books. And she would say it to the point of getting men and women to see the source of the problem.”

King’s reference to Smith is no coincidence. The two knew each other, and they spent time together. As he continued, one could even hear echoes of Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) in his sermon as King described the ways that race prejudice arises from the drum major instinct. He stated, “A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. And they have said it over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes.”

On multiple occasions, King mentioned Smith as one of the prominent white Southern voices during the period, even listing her, among others, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as one who has “written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms.” In “Who Speaks for the South?” King commented that the vocal bigoted minority does not “speak for the South.” Instead, the “voices like those of Miss Lillian E. Smith of Georgia, Mr. Harry Ashmore of Arkansas, and the ever-growing list of white Christian ministers . . . represent the true and basic sentiments of millions of southerners, whose voices are yet unheard, whose course is yet unclear and whose courageous acts are yet unseen.”

In “The Lessons,” the section of Killers of the Dream where Smith writes about her initiation into Southern tradition as a white woman, she explicitly points out the ways that the tradition labels whiteness as superior. While the “body is a thing of shame and mystery,” the white skin is one’s “glory and the source of [one’s] strength and pride. It is white. And, as [one has] heard, whiteness is a symbol of purity and excellence.” Smith points out, over and over again in her writing, the ways that the constructions of whiteness and white supremacy and the ways that the myths of whiteness damage the oppressor and the oppressed alike.

Again and again Smith points out the dangers of white supremacy, and again and again she speaks out against it. At other points in Killers, and in her other writings, she highlights the ways that white supremacy serves as a tool of the elite to sow division among those beneath them. She asks, “How can one idea like segregation become so hypnotic a thing that it binds a whole people together, good, bad, strong, weak, ignorant and learned, sensitive, obtuse, psychotic and sane, making them one as only a common worship or a deeply shared fear can do?” She continues by asking, “What makes it so important to us that men will keep themselves poor to sustain it, out of jobs to defend it?”

King addressed this through the Poor People’s Campaign and even had an international vision to counter America’s economic imperialism and colonization. He even pointed out these same issues in “The Drum Major Instinct.” Speaking about his time in Birmingham Jail, King talked about the white wardens who would talk to him about the race issue and try to tell him why protesting was wrong. Once the wardens told King how much they earned, he told them,

You know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes. . . .You are put in the position of supporting the oppressor. Because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.

Both Smith and King, along with numerous others such as Frank Yerby and W.E.B. Du Bois, understood the ways that whiteness acted to cleave in two, linking poor and wealthy whites together while severing any connection between poor whites and Blacks, even if that linkage hindered the poor, solely based on the mythic assumption of racial superiority.

In her final book, Our Faces, Our Words (1964), Smith drove the point home that the wealthy sowed division to maintain power. The book consists of nine dramatic monologues by individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and during the monologue by the young, white southern woman activist who is in jail and talking to her father, Smith zeroes in on the ways that wealth maintains white supremacy. The speaker thinks about why her father won’t stand up to the racism around him, and she tells him,

You went to Harvard — and yet you fall for the lies Mr. Rich White told Mr. Poor White long ago, to keep him satisfied with poverty and sharecropping, and all the rest of it. How can you? Don’t you know why all that was said? Don’t you know it was to keep poor whites from demanding their rights as Americans? Do you need me to tell you that is Mr. Rich White handed them a drug instead of bread? A tranquilizer for their hungry souls to feed on — and now it has driven some of them mad.

Continually, Smith and King called out those who chose to sit on the sidelines while oppression and subjugation occurred all around them. They saw the ways that the wealthy separated individuals, and they knew that if individuals woke up to this fact that things would change.

King and Smith both understood the power of demagogues and the rhetoric of fear. While those in power stoked the flames of hatred, millions sat by in silence, claiming they could not act. I always think of the girl who spoke with Smith at the camp and told her that she hated Smith for telling the truth about racism. She hated Smith because the truth made her hate those that she loved, her family. I think back to Miss Maudie in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when she tells Scout, Jem, and Dill that Atticus stands up and says things that she and others want to say but don’t.

If there are millions who sit idly by and say nothing as evil spews from the mouths of power and atrocities occur under their fists, then what is to stop such actions? What is to turn the tide? Idleness does not work. Such moments require action, and unless we act when these things occur, we are, as Smith writes in “Putting Away Childish Things,” merely “good people” in name only because we allow “the spiritual lynching” of individuals to occur daily.

Twelve years before he delivered “The Drum Major Instinct,” on March 10, 1956, Lillian Smith wrote a letter to King. She told him how much she admired his work and how she thought that King’s approach would be successful. She tells King that she would like to have the opportunity to meet him, and she offers her encouragement to the movement. Along with all of this, Smith also noted, as she did in speeches such as “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way,” the effects that King’s work and the work of so many others would have on the white psyche. She writes for King to tell those in Montgomery, “I, too, am working as hard as I can to bring insight to the white group; to try to open their hearts to the great harm that segregation inflicts not only on Negroes but on white people too.”

Along with her assertion of racism’s effects on whites, she pointed out that racism caused a severing within the psyche, causing the oppressor to deny logic and succumb wholly to the mythological ideas of white supremacy that act as an umbilical cord that one must sever in order to truly grow and survive. In her letter to King, she writes,

I, myself, being a Deep South white, reared in a religious home and the Methodist church realize the deep ties of common songs, common prayer, common symbols that bind our two races together on a religio-mystical level, even as another brutally mythic idea, the concept of White Supremacy, tears our two people apart.

Smith explored, throughout Killers of the Dream, the ways that these myths created “logic tight compartments” that caused the severing of the mind: “This separation divorced our beliefs from the energy that might have carried them into acts, but we accepted this moral impotence as a natural thing and often developed what is called a ‘judicious’ temperament from believing equally in both sides of a question.”

Writing about her childhood, Smith talks about her upbringing and the ways that her education taught her to, as she puts it, “split my conscience from my acts and Christianity from my southern tradition.” Southern tradition became the umbilical cord, nourishing the mental split and feeding the racism and hate. The cord, during “times of ease,” did not exert much influence upon the person, “but when [one is] threatened with change, suddenly it draws the whole white South together in a collective fear and fury that wipe[s their] minds clear of reason,” blocking them from any logical contact with the world.

This severing allowed white men to maintain white supremacy and power because they silenced their consciences. At the end of “Three Ghosts Stories,” the chapter in Killers of the Dream where Smith writes about the myths surrounding white southern womanhood and sex, she details how these myths and the lustful actions of white men led to economic disparities. She writes,

I know now that the bitterness, the cruel sensual lips, the quick tears in hard eyes, the sashaying buttocks of brown girls, the thin childish voices of white women, had a great deal to do with the high interest rate at the bank and low wages in the mills and gullied fields and lynchings and Ku Klux Klan and segregation and sacred womanhood and revivals, and Prohibition.

By separating the mind, white supremacy creates a space where one can justify the oppression and subjugation of others without thinking about the effects it has on the oppressor or the oppressed. Smith knew this, and she wrote about it throughout her career.

Smith and King corresponded and met on various occasions. In 1960, after having dinner together, Martin and Coretta, he drove Smith back to Emory University Hospital for her cancer treatment. “On the way,” as Coretta writes in My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr., “a policeman stopped Martin simply because he had a white woman in his car. Then, when he saw that he was dealing with that well-known ‘troublemaker,’ he issued a summons.” The next day, King went to the De Kalb County courthouse and paid the twenty-five dollar fine. He was given a suspended sentence and placed on probation. He did not know, as Coretta points out, about the suspended sentence.

A few months later, King was arrested during a sit in in Atlanta. De Kalb County officials kept him in prison because they claimed that the sit in violated his probation. The judge sentenced King to six months’ hard labor at the state prison in Reidsville. King’s attorney asked that the judge not send him to Reidsville immediately because they were preparing a writ of habeas corpus; however, in the middle of the night, officers came in to King’s cell and drove him to Reidsville, 3 hours from De Kalb.

John F. Kennedy was running for president against Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy called Coretta expressing his concern and telling her that she if needed anything to let him know. Kennedy, along with his brother Robert, secured King’s release, partly as a political move to help secure the Black vote. Some of his advisers suggested against Kennedy getting involved, but Robert persuaded him to do so. As Coretta writes, “It is my belief that historians are right when they say that his intervention in Martin’s case won the presidency for him.”

We remember this part of the story. It gets retold, over and over again when we see documentaries or pieces about King or Kennedy. We remember that the authorities arrested King based on a traffic violation from months before the sit in. What we do not get, though, is the cause for that traffic violation. We do not get that he was pulled over, before the cop even knew who he was, for having Lillian Smith, a white woman and his friend, in the front seat with him. We do not get that he was taking her to the hospital after they ate dinner together. We do not get that the two had a correspondence and relationship. We need that part of the story. We need to see the work that King and Smith did together, the thoughts they shared, the words they wrote to one another. We need their relationship in our memory.

Upon her death in September 1966, King wrote to her family, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of your sister and our dear friend, Lillian Smith. Her writings, her exemplary life and her commitment to people and humanity inspired millions. She was one of the brightest stars in the human firmament. Probably no southerner seared the conscience of white southerners on the question of racial injustice than Lillian Smith. She carved for herself an imperishable niche in the annals of American history.”



Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.