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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Stetson Kennedy, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0354. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Lillian Smith's strong attacks on segregation

Kennedy remembers writer Lillian Smith and the influence her acid pen had on southern politicians like Theodore Bilbo.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Stetson Kennedy, May 11, 1990. Interview A-0354. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

STETSON KENNEDY:
Let me talk about Lillian Smith a second, and perhaps some other examples will come to me. I was there in Atlanta, plugged into the CIO PAC. My assignment was to write about things like poll tax and white primary and other restrictions of voting, and the CIO policy, although its policy was white and black in the same union, it would never say outright that it was opposing segregation or that part of its mission was to uphold segregation and so on. It was simply going to practice non-segregation and non-discrimination, and look at every member as a brother and without any discussion about what color anyone was.
JOHN EGERTON:
Just gonna to it.
STETSON KENNEDY:
So this was, needless to say, a very effective approach. But they were not talking desegregation. They were simply practicing it, which was all right with me. So my emphasis was upon voting restrictions which affected all poor southerners, white and black, and only incidentally the white primary, for example, and the special restrictions put on black voting. But I went across the board on that subject. At the same time, Lillian Smith was up at, where was her place in Georgia?
JOHN EGERTON:
Up in the mountains in Clayton.
STETSON KENNEDY:
Clayton. And publishing South Today with Paula Snelling. Lillian Smith's writings, she was coming from, well, first of all, her technique was somewhat analogous to Highlander. That is, she brought a handful of people to Clayton, her home, on weekends, black and white. They had discussions and social gatherings and so on. So that she was doing that in much the same manner that Highlander was doing it on a larger scale. The corner she was coming from, so far as I could decipher from the magazine and her other writings, novels, was to a degree social psychology and analysis even, and perhaps to a degree Freudiam analysis. This was all right with me. I think wherever she was coming from, she did a lot of good.
JOHN EGERTON:
She said some pretty strong stuff and said it beautifully. She really could express herself.
STETSON KENNEDY:
She did. She pulled no punches. The fact that she pulled no punches and made no qualifications, I think made it extremely powerful. I remember when [Senator] Bilbo was on his death bed, cancer of the throat, I guess our most rabid racist, and in the Congressional record still—he would read all the classics of racism, Hitler or anyone else he could find, into the Congressional record in the fillabusters against our anti-poll tax bills and anti-lynching bills and so on. But on his death bed, Bilbo called in the press and said that [laughter] he preferred the surgeon's throat cutting style. They were going to cut vertically, whereas books like Lillian Smith's, what was it, Color?
JOHN EGERTON:
Strange Fruit?
STETSON KENNEDY:
Strange Fruit, and Kennedy's Southern Exposure, they were cutting his and the South's [laughter] throat horizontally. They were virtually his last words.