Maxine Smith is recognized for leading the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” campaigns that boycotted downtown stores with desegregated workforces and separate water fountains.
Smith graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at age 15. She attended Spelman College in Atlanta, where she knew Martin Luther King, Jr., who had also graduated high school early and was attending the nearby Morehouse College.
After graduating, Spelman, Smith went on to earn a Master’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont and taught college-level French. In 1957, Smith applied to a graduate program at the all-white University of Memphis, then called Memphis State University. She was denied because of her race, it was at that moment Smith made the decision to dedicate her time to fighting for civil rights.
She organized the “If You’re Black, Take It Back” campaigns boycotting downtown stores that would not integrate their workforce. In 1961 she helped escort thirteen black first-graders who desegregated four white public schools.
Smith served as the executive secretary for the Memphis chapter of the NAACP from 1962 until 1995, and she helped organize the sanitation workers’ strike. Smith became the first African-American elected to the Memphis City Schools Board of Education. Maxine Smith died on April 26, 2013, at the age of 83.