During the LES Studies course this semester, we have started talking about whether or not Lillian Smith deals with class in her examinations of the psychological effects of racism. We have talked about Smith’s commentary on the wedges that wealthy whites, those in power, drive between individuals beneath them and the ways that these wedges, coupled with the rhetoric of demagogues, serves to sustain white supremacy. We’ve talked about the aid she provided to individuals, both Black and white, in the community where she lived and beyond. However, we also notice that she sees racist thought as an individual and moral problem. In order to build a better world, for Smith, one must cure the individual and the system will follow.
Writing about Smith’s work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW), and notably her falling out with James Dombrowski and the organization, Randall Patton notes that “Lillian Smith advocated an intensely psychological view of the race problem.” Smith served on the SCHW’s board of directors, but in 1945 she resigned, arguing that the organization did not have adequate representation on the board and elsewhere. Patton delves into the split within American liberalism during the mid-twentieth century, and he argues that Smith’s departure from the SCHW, along with others events, highlights this spilt. Patton notes that both sides of the split “agreed that racial discrimination was wrong and that southern poverty had to be addressed.”
However, the two sides differed on which one they should focus on as they moved forward. The SCHW believed that in order to eliminate racial discrimination a concerted focus on the “fundamental issues of poverty” must be addressed first. Smith, on the other hand, argued that instead of politics a focus on the individual, specifically touching the individual’s heart and mind must be the focus. As she wrote in Killers of the Dream, “I believe individuals not connected with politics can do far more than politicians can do. It is more urgent to change men’s beliefs than to pass legislation though I think both necessary.”
Twenty three years after the quote from Killers of the Dream, Smith wrote the introduction for James Peck’s Freedom Ride. There, she reiterated her position that the individual, not legislation and politics, should be the focus. She begins the introduction by…