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Lillian Smith Studies: "Ten Years from Today"

World War II Posters

George McCluarin

Introduction

Lillian Smith delivered "Ten Years from Today" at the 1951 commencement at Kentucky State College, an HBCU established in 1886 in Frankfurt, KY. It was published in the August 1951 issue of Vital Speeches. In the address, Smith talks about the history of racism in America, specifically coming out of World War II, and hope for the future, claiming that in ten years segregation would be gone in South. She wrote, "Ten years from today, racial segregation as a legal way of life will be gone from Dixie." As history tells us, it took more than ten years for this to occur.

Smith delivered this speech three years before the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education and four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Throughout the course of the speech, she speaks about the importance of art in social movements and the role of democracy in protecting men's rights. Of the speech, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "It is most interesting to me that even as courageous a person as Miss Smith could confidently state that in 10 years time she hoped to see segregation wiped out in the South, as well as throughout the rest of our country. She even suggests that the idea of equality among men is so much on the march throughout the world that even South Africa and some other areas of the world that have great racial prejudices are going to see these prejudices disappear."     

Possible Activities

  1. Construct a timeline of all of the civil rights actions that occurred ten years before Smith's speech to ten year after Smith's speech.
  2. Research one of the following court cases--McLaurin v. University of Oklahoma (1950), Sweatt v. Painter (1950), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), or Rodriguez v. San Antonio ISD (1973)--and conduct a mock trial in the classroom. 
  3. Near the beginning of the speech, Smith speaks about African American soldiers during World War II. Research and present on one of the following--Double V Campaign, "Negro Hero: To Suggest Dorie Miller," "Gay Chaps at the Bar," Mine Eyes Have Seen, Jackie Robinson, or Joe Louis--and construct a presentation about what the topic or person says about patriotism and segregation during either World War I or World War II. 

Double V Campaign

Questions

  1. Looking at Smith's speech, how does she address her audience of graduates and others at an HBCU? How would her speech be different if she addressed the speech to a predominantly white audience? 
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech twelve years after Lillian Smith's "Ten Years from Today." Looking at both speeches, how much of Smith's words had come to fruition in those twelve years? 
  3. In her speech, Smith writes, "What a sad and tragic thing will be in our South if those who are gifted stay silent!" What role does art have in enacting change? What does Smith say about art and artists?
  4. Smith writes, "A taboo's magic lies always in its ability to keep every one from daring to break it or talk about breaking it. . . . Those who support segregation have depended upon fear and silence to keep it strong in the South." Where do we still see "fear and silence" in our current discussions of equity? What happens when we remain silent in the face of such rhetoric?   
  5. Smith claims that segregation will end within ten years of her speech. We know that Smith's assertion was not correct. The question remains, have we reached equality even today, close to seventy years after her speech. What areas of inequality remain? What can we do to eliminate these inequalities in the next ten years?