Much had already been written over several decades about Maxine Smith long before this morning’s announcement that she died overnight at the age of 83 here in Memphis.
And even more will be written in the years to come.
Her death came about a year after her latest heart surgery.
Smith was the personification of the civil rights movement in Memphis from the mid 1950s to the move of black leaders into the political majority and establishment.
We wrote about her just over a year ago as she donated her papers to the Memphis-Shelby County Room of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, a considerable trove of data essential to any understanding of our city in the mid to late 20th century.
Smith was one of the first newsmakers I covered extensively when I started doing this for a living nearly 40 years ago. And she was certainly the most controversial in 1975 and for many years later.
She could be polarizing in a substantial and meaningful way that I have never seen anyone else duplicate. And because she could be that polarizing, she almost always in the last 40 years negotiated from a position of strength in and out of the public eye. It was polarization for a purpose. It was polarization based on the premise that no matter how reasonable her position, the fact that she took the position meant she was going to be criticized for injecting race into the public discourse of a city already consumed by all things racial.
In those years, Memphis was still struggling with the idea that it was better to get such issues out in the open instead of making like they didn’t exist or should be hidden from view.
Those who disagreed with Smith politically invoked her name and their opposition to her to build their political support. Those who wanted her support invoked her name and their allegiance with her to build their political support.
But getting her actual political support was not as easy as saying nice things about her or declaring solidarity with her.
And she rarely responded to the kind of vitriolic criticism that has long made our politics much too focused on personalities and personality clashes.
Smith’s importance in the affairs of Memphis was her focus on what to do with power and how to use it once it was obtained.
It was what made her such a pivotal figure for so long and that is her legacy.