JASPER — A new documentary on Jasper native Lillian Smith, a southern writer/activist who received national attention in the 1940s-50s as the first prominent southern author to speak out against segregation, will be screened at the Jasper Public Library on Oct. 10 at 6 p.m.
“Breaking the Silence,” a 50-minute documentary, premiered Friday.
Her name and books are mostly forgotten now except by southern historians and activists. Yet from the 1940s through the early 1960s, the southern writer was a force to be reckoned with.
Her first novel, Strange Fruit (1944), was a national bestseller that dropped like a bomb on wartime America because of its bold look at social — and sexual — relations in a small southern town that strongly resembled her hometown of Jasper, where she was born in 1897.
Writing from her home in the north Georgia mountains, where she lived most of her life, she was deemed a traitor to the South for her stance on racial and gender equality. Segregation amounted to "spiritual lynching" to both whites and blacks, she wrote in numerous articles, and in her controversial semi-autographical book Killers of the Dream (published in 1949 and reprinted in 1961).
Before the Civil Rights Movement took off in the late 1950s, she was a voice of reason in the North. Here was a southern woman who remained in the South and wasn’t afraid to speak her conscience against the demagogues, Klan and mobs.
Smith was lauded by luminaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt and James Baldwin, and was an inspiration to leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. She was a trusted friend and correspondent of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in his impassioned Letter from Birmingham Jail, included her as one of a small group of those who “have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.” In fact, in 1960, when King was pulled over in DeKalb County for an alleged traffic violation, Smith was riding in his car. He was driving her to Emory Hospital for the treatment of cancer that plagued her for more than 10 years and would eventually take her life in 1966.
“Breaking the Silence” explores how this child of the South became a formidable opponent of the southern way of life protected by segregationist politicians, church leaders and newspaper editors. The documentary tells the story of Smith in her own voice and seldom-seen interviews, and also through the voices of friends and family and those like Otis Moss Jr. and Lonnie King, both pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as leading academics such as George Yancy of Emory University, Diane Roberts of Florida State University, and Lillian Smith scholar Rose Gladney.
Created by Hal and Henry Jacobs, the film explores the life of Smith who was a southern leader in denouncing segregation and white supremacists for several decades — paying a heavy price for it. Smith left a lasting legacy in the literary and Civil Rights communities, a legacy that is still relevant, today.
At this screening, attendees will view the final version of the documentary; revised after feedback received from the preview screenings held at Decatur Library in May 2019.