(WMC-TV) - Civil rights icon Maxine Smith passed away early Friday morning. Smith is a world-renowned figure in the civil rights movement as the Memphis native spent years fighting for equal rights for all – especially in education.
Georgia Maxine Atkins Smith was born on October 31, 1929. The 15-year-old Booker T. Washington High School graduate attended Spellman in Atlanta, and then Middlebury College in Vermont when the University of Tennessee would not admit her because of her race.
It was the later rejection her hometown college that inspired her to work for change. In 1957, she tried to enroll at the then Memphis State University. More than 50 years later, she received an honorary doctorate from the school.
Smith spent her life fighting for civil rights and education equality.
"In all of the discussions and litigations the dialogue, the diatribe and what's going on concerning the merger of the school systems, she would say, 'Let your heart speak, do right, do right for the children,'" said family friend Ruby Wharton.
In 1960, she helped organize the desegregation of Memphis public schools. She escorted the first 13 Memphis children to benefit from the desegregation.
Smith served on the coordinating committee for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, which Martin Luther King, Jr. attended to support before he was assassinated.
She was at the forefront of the "Black Monday" student boycotts that lasted from 1969 to 1972.
In 1971, she was elected to the Memphis Board of Education. She held the position until her retirement in 1995.
Smith was the executive secretary of the NAACP for more than 40 years. She was a member of the board of directors for numerous charitable organization including the National Civil Rights Museum and the Women's Foundation for Greater Memphis.
"She will be missed, but her mark on history will live forever," said Dr. Willie Herenton.
National Civil Rights Museum President Beverly Robertson released the following statement about Smith's passing:
"The entire board and staff of the National Civil Rights Museum is deeply saddened to learn about the death of one this city's most important civil rights icons. Maxine had a fearless and courageous manner in which she confronted the most challenging civil rights issues. Her tenacity, persistence and dogged determination ensured that issues were effectively resolved.
Not only have I lost a stellar board member, but I have also lost a very close, personal friend."
Smith suffered a number of health issues the last few years of her life undergoing heart surgery in 2012. She was 83 years old.