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Department Chair: Dr. Maria K. Bachman
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The year 2004 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the United States Supreme Court mandated desegregation of the nation's public schools while striking a fatal blow to the notion that the races could be kept separate and yet somehow equal. Few decisions have had farther ranging consequences.
To help southerners of "good will" accept the high court's ruling, Georgia writer and civil rights activist Lillian Smith produced Now Is the Time, a small book that she envisioned as a political tract. Smith's goal was to provide a compelling rationale for the Court's decision and to itemize the small and "undramatic" ways in which southerners could create the necessary climate for social change. The Southwest Review praised Smith for possessing "to an uncommon degree the ability to probe through the cottony, webby mass of rationalizations and excuses with which we have surrounded our guilts and fears, and with simple words to expose the core of the trouble to the light."
The author of Strange Fruit (1944) and Killers of the Dream (1949), Smith was highly prized in liberal circles and openly reviled among white supremacists. She was also the bete noire of those southern intellectuals, including Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, who criticized her refusal to embrace moderation--or "gradualism"--as a viable response to the region's racial problems.
A noted Smith scholar, Brantley provides an Afterword that stresses the uniqueness of Smith's vision and that charts the response to Now Is the Time, including its suppression at the peak of southern resistance to the Court's order--a movement that had a positive counterpart in the simultaneous emergence of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other early civil rights protests.
Brantley demonstrates that no other southerner produced a book as bold as Now Is the Time and that, given the nature of the region at mid century, perhaps no other southerner could have produced such a book. The fiftieth anniversary of Brown provides an appropriate occasion to consider the still timely social commentary of a woman who was, by any measure, one of the most courageous thinkers of her era.
Brantley's previous work on Smith includes Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman, Porter, and Hurston (UP of Mississippi, 1993; paper edition 1995), which received the Eudora Welty Prize and which was cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a key work in the re-discovery of Smith that occurred in the 1990s. Brantley's essay-review of Smith's collected letters, How Am I to Be Heard?, appeared in the Mississippi Quarterly (Fall 1994). Three years later he introduced a cluster of essays that the Southern Quarterly published to mark the centennial of Smith's birth (Summer 1997). His article on Smith's FBI file, "Another Story from the Federal Bureau of Investigation: The Surveillance of Georgia Writer and Civil Rights Activist Lillian Smith," was published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly (Spring 2001). He has also published a biographical article on Smith in The History of Southern Women's Literature (Louisiana State UP, 2002).