ACLU’s Maya Dillard Smith: ‘I am unapologetically Black’
By Maynard Eaton
It may have been the passing of the proverbial torch from one generation to another. Hattie Dorsey, a seasoned and savvy “firecracker” of a housing and public policy activist, recently hosted a meet and greet dinner conversation for another young firebrand, Maya Dillard Smith, the new executive director of the Georgia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Just 37-years old, Smith is the youngest of the organization’s 53 executive directors and one of only three African Americans. She is already courting controversy and ruefully reveals, “I am getting bashed by Black folks.”
That’s because Smith recently told the Georgia Court of Appeals that the Ku Klux Klan has a free-speech right to sponsor the cleanup of a state highway. Given the notorious hate group’s history of tyranny, lynching’s and Jim Crow tactics her expert defense of the KKK didn’t sit well with some activists and civil rights veterans
“The issue under the law about free speech is a principled one regardless of who the speaker is,” Smith says during an interview. “The very fundamental notion of the First Amendment is that the government cannot tell speakers, individual speakers or associations, what to say because we run the risk of government then determining what speech is popular and what’s not. The issue here was whether or not the state could exclude them from picking up trash.
“In today’s environment if Black Lives Matter wanted to pick up trash and the state told them ‘no they couldn’t, because we don’t agree with your viewpoint,’ the very Black people mad at me wouldn’t be mad. So I defend the principal because it is the right thing to do. We have to take who the speaker is off the table because today it is the KKK and tomorrow it could be Black Lives Matter. It is really important to me that people understand that this is not progressive or conservative. This is about being on the right side of people’s rights. I want to uphold the people’s liberty.”
“The KKK has free speech rights too,” says Dorsey, the founding president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership back in 1991. I asked her if, after listening to Smith speak for more than an hour and field questions from activists and civil rights figures like Tom Houck, she thought the mother of three had the spunk and spirit to make a difference?
“Yes, I think so,” says the dynamic Dorsey at her home in Old Fourth Ward where she grew up as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and civil rights leader. “I think she is going to need some help, and she is going to need people like myself because she can get caught up in being used. There are a lot of people who talk the game but don’t want to stick their neck out. But she has the resources and she has the name, ACLU.”
Smith told her living room audience of Atlanta influencers that, “race is a hard thing for folks to talk about,” even here in the city widely considered to be the cradle of the civil rights movement.
“One of the reasons I am going to love this job is because the ACLU takes in the toughest and most controversial civil rights and civil liberties issues,” explains the California native. “We litigate and we legislate, but there is also the strategic part about it which is the ability to have conversations and shape public opinion on all these various issues. So it is from that level of candor and transparency that I assume this role of leadership.
“It’s a dishonest conversation not to talk about race in a place like this,” she continues. “We have the largest absolute number of Black folks in the country. We have a racially segregated state house. This whole battle about the KKK adopting a highway, putting Martin Luther King on Stone Mountain, the Confederate flag, Black Lives Matter, I could go on and on and on. And, yet we are still not having an honest conversation about race. I feel I am in a unique position to do that, as the leader of the ACLU, as an African American woman who is unapologetically Black and still sees the value of the defending the KKK’s free speech rights.”
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard was impressed.
“I think she has a tough road,” Howard says. ”It would have been tough in a normal situation, but to come in and participate in a lawsuit with the KKK makes it even tougher. I think it is necessary. I think we need to be prodded. I think we need to be reminded why this country is great and that’s the role the ACLU serves.”
“She is super qualified,” adds attorney Sherman Golden, a native Atlantan and financial specialist. “She has an undergraduate degree in economics from Berkley, a law degree from UC Hasting, a masters in public policy from Harvard, clerked at the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, clerked at the California Supreme Court. That’s a serious background. You tie that with somebody whose heart is in the right place and is fearless, and has a budget. There is an opportunity that is rare in Atlanta for somebody with resources, who is also educated and exposed, who also has courage. Those are very, very rare qualities. She is positioned to make a difference.”