Civil rights activist Maxine Smith dies at age 83 - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Civil rights activist Maxine Smith dies at age 83

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

Civil rights icon Maxine Smith has died at the age of 83. 

Smith was propelled into the middle of the civil rights storm when she was rejected by Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, after she applied to graduate school there.  After her rejection she coordinated sit-ins, protests and voter registration drives.

FOX13 anchor Valerie Cahoun profiled Smith in a 2004 story:

Georgia Maxine Atkins wanted to be a dentist when she graduated from Booker T. Washington at age 15.  By the time she earned a bachelor's degree from Spelman, Maxine was 19 and headed to Middlebury College for her master's degree.  A few years later Maxine married a dentist, Vasco Smith, and, by all accounts, could have lived a nice, quiet life in her large South Memphis home.  But it all changed when the young mother tried to attend classes at Memphis State now University of Memphis.  "I didn't think we had any idea we'd be rejected."  That was 1957, a time when the university did not admit blacks no matter their qualifications.  "I do remember one thing, I was mad when I came out."

It was that anger that propelled Maxine Smith onto the front lines in the battle for civil rights.   "The community is very worked up about this.  I can't really predict what will happen."

Martin Luther King was assassinated on his way to meet Maxine and others for dinner.  This wasn't Maxine's last brush with history.  "It just happened I was with Martin Luther King.  It just happened that I was the last to kiss Medgar Evers before he died.  It just happened that James Meredith left my house going to Ole Miss."

Maxine ran for Memphis City School board and won despite a heart attack that brought her campaigning to a halt.  Her fight against segregation and, later, school board cuts led to several arrests.  "It was a thing we had to do. We had to resist unjust laws. It was a sacrifice you have to make."

Beverly Robertson says, "Maxine has probably been the singular individual who has made the most difference in terms of galvanizing a body of people in the struggle."

Maxine says we've lost a generation and young people don't realize what their freedom cost.  "They don't know the pain so many went through for the front of the bus."

We met three students who may be the richer for a chance meeting with Maxine on the day we joined her at the university of Memphis.  By the time we parted ways Maxine had spread the gospel.

And, the woman who once wanted to fix teeth finds peace 46 years later in the very spot where her battle began.

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