Maxine and Vasco Smith were prominent Memphis civil rights activists during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, Maxine was denied admission to Memphis State University because of her race, inspiring her to join the National Association for the Advancement of Black People (NAACP). She became the Executive Secretary in 1962, serving until her retirement in 1995.
Together, the couple participated in demonstrations and sit-ins to protest against segregation in department stores, resulting in numerous arrests. Maxine led the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” campaign for 18 months in the early 1960s to boycott downtown stores that would not hire black employees and practiced other forms of segregation. In 1961, she helped escort the children chosen to desegregate public schools in Memphis to and from school. She served on the coordinating committee of the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968.
In the early 1960s, Vasco and Maxine created the Program for Progress (POP) to inform Memphians of local politics and civic participation, particularly the disenfranchised African American community, and mobilize the traditionally oppressed voices throughout the city as voters. In 1971, Maxine became the first African American to be elected to the Memphis Board of Education, and in 1973, Vasco was elected to the Shelby County Quorum Court. Vasco was the first black elected county commissioner serving for 20 years. Maxine and Vasco had a strong partnership, supporting each other through 46 years of marriage.
For more information on Maxine and Vasco Smith, please visit the Crossroads to Freedom website. Also, see Sherry Lee Hoppe and Bruce W. Speck’s Maxine Smith’s Unwilling Pupils: Lessons Learned in Memphis’s Civil Rights Classroom.