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Maxine Atkins Smith

Maxine Atkins Smith

Maxine Smith has spent her life working for racial equality and excellence in education. 

Born in Memphis in 1929, Maxine Smith earned a Master’s Degree and spent several years as a Professor of French at Prairie View College, Florida A&M University, and LeMoyne-Owen College.

Smith served for many years as Executive Secretary of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, which she joined in 1957. At that time, Memphis State University was a white-only school. Smith and her friend, Laurie Sugarmon, applied to the University as a challenge to that policy. The University denied the women, though both were unquestionably well-qualified. Smith immediately started working for the NAACP.

In the early 1960s, she helped desegregate the Memphis City Schools and organized an eighteen-month boycott of downtown stores. She supported the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1967, and led a series of Black Monday demonstrations against the Memphis Board of Education.

In 2003, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis presented the prestigious Freedom Award to Smith and to former President Bill Clinton for outstanding contributions to civil and human rights. Smith accepted her award first, describing it as a “thrilling, thrilling moment.” She cautioned, however, that the “struggle is far from over.” She asserted that education is a key to the future. She said “Education will determine the food you eat, the job you hold.”

Maxine Smith features prominently in a new temporary exhibit at the Pink Palace called Women of Strength, Women of Color. The exhibit includes a number of artifacts that help tell her story, as well as that of many other African-American women.


To learn more about our region’s rich history, visit the Pink Palace Family of Museums, or on Facebook, or at http://memphismuseums.org.