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Missing my Momma Maxine in Memphis

Maxine and me at a recent Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award
Family collection

MEMPHIS—When I returned again this week to this city of purple mists, hovering ghosts, and sudden ferocious rainstorms, the hole in my heart for my departed, adopted mother was real and dampening. Maxine Smith quietly died since my last visit (the only thing she ever did quietly); a ribald, elderly black lady who had not been afraid of prison or reminding you that you forgot the bleu cheese olives to throw into the strong martinis she’d mix for us.

In the category of the heart, she was my mother.

Maxine Smith, classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. (she called him “the Nerd”), purveyor of great stories from the heyday of the US Civil Rights Movement, Tennessee freedom icon, a woman as downright funny as she was uncommonly brave—this woman allowed me to call her “My Momma Maxine.” Over the last several years, since I first interviewed her for one of my books, she quickly became my mentor, confidante, advocate, and counselor.

In the category of the heart, she was my mother. It wasn’t just because when it came to my own mother, I hadn’t gotten a break. It was because Maxine gave me the maternal laughter, scolding, and history that no other such woman ever had.

Before this week, I never alighted in the Bluff City without making “Maxine time”—succulent Southern meals, shaken, icy drinks, and wondrously salty language that mixed well with the teasing love. My grief for her today is drenched by the salty waters of our kindred spirits.

Whether I was launching a book in Memphis (at her beloved National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where was a founder and lifelong trustee) or just there to romp on Beale Street and listen to great music at the Stax Museum, I never failed to spend time with Maxine at her rambling, tree-laden home on stately East Parkway. She loved vodka, gossip, shared anecdotes—and she loved me. Her son, the extraordinarily devoted “Smitty,” not only didn’t resent my relationship with his famous mom; he cheered for it.

In her mighty, more youthful days as the executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP, Maxine integrated the city’s schools, marched in protests against segregated public facilities, and was several times jailed. With her beloved late husband, Vasco, she stood up to the oligarchic Southern racism that officially branded Memphis with hate when MLK was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

Maxine was in the congregation, with her young son, the night before, April 3, when King delivered his hauntingly prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” preachment. “He liked a good-sized crowd,” she told me, a twinkle in her eye, and a painful smile across her face.

Maxine Smith was well-acquainted with turbulence and violence affecting her and her friends. She and Vasco spearheaded an unprecedented voter registration campaign for black Memphians beginning in the late 1950s. In one extended effort, defying police hostility, the physical assaults of white supremacists, routine death threats, personal humiliations (in one instance, police detained her for hours in a men’s urinal), they raised the number of registered black voters from ten thousand to over fifty thousand.

Of such efforts, Maxine told me over and over again: “Oh, I didn’t do that much. Other people did it and I was just there.” When we would walk through her home and I took in her wall after wall of plaques, honors, and awards, she routinely dismissed all the notoriety, mentioning the names and sacrifices of others who brought about this change or that and saying, “I was lucky enough to be there, that’s all.”

Then we’d sit down, mix some more martinis, and she’d ask me about my children. It was always hard to leave Maxine when it was time to go. Today, it is very hard for me to let her go; I am finally orphaned but hardly alone. Her memory is my lifeline.

Order my newest book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers'

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