NAACP veteran and civil rights advocate Maxine Atkins Smith will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from her alma mater, Middlebury College, on May 22.
Smith, who served as executive secretary of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, has been affiliated with the group for nearly 50 years. Throughout her career, she has fought for civil rights and equality, orchestrating sit-in demonstrations and organizing lawsuits and protest marches.
In 1960, she played a vital role in helping to desegregate Memphis Public Schools. In 1971, she earned a seat on the Memphis Board of Education, a position she held until her retirement in 1995.
“Maxine Atkins Smith has devoted her life to ensuring that African-Americans in this country have the same access to education as anyone else,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement. “From escorting schoolchildren during the desegregation era, to supporting the first African-American superintendent of Memphis schools, and later serving as President of the Memphis Board of Education, Smith has been a trailblazer for equal rights.”
Smith has received more than 160 awards for her efforts for equality in education. Among her list of achievements, she has won the National NAACP Leadership Award, the Bill of Rights Award from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Whitney H. Young Jr. Award from the National Education Association.
A Spelman College graduate, she applied to Memphis State University for graduate study and was rejected because she is Black. She was accepted by Middlebury College in Vermont, earning a master’s degree in French in 1950. She taught French in the Memphis school system when her civil rights activism lead to a membership with the NAACP’s Memphis branch in 1957.
“We are honored this year to present Maxine Atkins Smith, one of our most distinguished alumni, with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters,” Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz said in a statement to the AFRO. “Smith is a legendary figure, having fought for civil rights and school integration throughout her career, both as an educator and as a leader of the Memphis Chapter of the NAACP. We look forward to welcoming her once again to the Middlebury campus, and introducing her to our graduating seniors and their families and friends during commencement weekend.”