Funeral services are Friday for Vasco Smith.
Much has been written and said about the former Shelby County Commissioner and civil rights leader since he died Monday.
With his wife, Maxine Smith – the long time executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP and a Memphis school board member – the dentist from South Memphis provided much needed leadership.
That leadership took Memphis from the whitewashed version of Mayberry civic leaders of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s wanted us to believe the city was to the much more complex version of a big but unique city that Memphis has always been.
Vasco Smith brought the truth to our civic discussions and deliberations. Whatever discomfort that caused – and at times it was most uncomfortable – it was done in the spirit of someone who cared deeply about Memphis. He could be a fiery advocate for his point of view. But Smith could also come to terms with those who met his determination with an equally well thought out counter argument. To get there, you had to rise to the occasion and the result usually got all of us closer to some lofty goals. Those goals weren’t easily obtained. We are still working toward some and many will be works in progress for some time.
Relegated to the sidelines of officialdom in the 1950s and 60s, Smith was restless and not content to remain a sideline critic. He wanted political power for the best of reasons – because he wanted a voice and a seat at the table in the community he loved and called home.
The best evidence of his intentions was the life he built as a small business owner and a homeowner. He lived in the city he worked to improve. What Smith saw and experienced in his everyday life informed his actions as a political leader. And when he retired from elected office in the mid 1990s, it was to a life that informed his political identity.
In the late 1960s and into the mid 1970s, the Smiths were the most hated public figures in some parts of this city. They never talked about the full extent of the hatred they experienced on a daily basis in the smallest personal ways as well as what passed for political rhetoric by “leaders” of the day. It had an intensity that others might have felt compelled to return with hatred. Somehow they kept their eyes on the goal. They maintained an unwavering belief that on the other side of the ordeal was a better day. And most important of all, they continued to fight with the belief that the means are just as important as the end result.
They opened their home to one time adversaries as well as allies. They attempted to talk with those who remained adversaries.
Not all of the battles came with a clear victory. Some will point to court ordered busing as a failure that has resulted in a defacto racial segregation between the two public school systems as opposed to schools within one school system. To pin the failure on any one person is much too simple. To believe the issue is over is naïve. Already there is a heavy undercurrent in the discussions about single source education funding and consolidation that suggests it isn’t realistic to talk about either issue without dealing with the question of why Shelby County needs two public school systems.
In the life of Vasco Smith is the guide for how we should approach that civic discussion – honestly, passionately and openly.
It is common for political leaders to make a big deal out of how they are just like you and me. In too many cases, there is nothing there beyond the practice of politics. They might as well be a cardboard cut out. And aside from the personal tragedy of a life that thin, it is also dangerous. Those whose existence and identity depends entirely on winning elected or appointed office lack a necessary reality that brings a value and vitality to the practice of politics.
Vasco Smith never forgot that politics must have a larger purpose than living to practice politics for another day or another term.