Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lillian E. Smith: Part I

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 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.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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