1963: Muriel Smith – A voice for racial healing

17/05/2021
Muriel Smith

 

Near the coffee bar in the Caux Palace stands a grand piano, the gift of American mezzo-soprano Muriel Smith. She was a familiar face at Caux conferences in the 1960s, filling the meeting hall and theatre with her unforgettable voice.

Muriel grew up in Harlem, New York. She created the role of Carmen Jones on Broadway in the 1940s, a time when few black singers were prominent outside the jazz scene. In the early 1950s she moved from Broadway to the London revue and recital stage and then to Drury Lane, where she starred for five years in South Pacific and The King and I.

 

Muriel Smith singing in Caux
Muriel Smith singing in Caux

 

In 1957, she was the first black opera singer to take the lead in Carmen at Covent Garden. Her artistry and hard work had brought her to the top of the ladder in the musical world.

That autumn riots broke out in Atlanta, Georgia, and Little Rock, Arkansas, over new integration laws. The news hit Muriel hard. ‘A great sense of helplessness came over me,’ she wrote later. ‘What practical thing could I do? Or where could I put myself in order to be in the path of something that might need to be done?’ 

What practical thing could I do? Or where could I put myself in order to be in the path of something that might need to be done?

 

Muriel Smith The Crowning Experience scene
Muriel Smith in The Crowning Experience

 

The next year, she turned down Sam Goldwyn’s insistent offer of a role in the film of Porgy and Bess, because she felt it did not enhance the dignity of her people. From then on, she devoted her talents to promoting understanding of the black race and healing racial divisions worldwide.

She found in Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) the framework for which she had been looking. For 15 years she travelled widely, using musicals, plays, films, recitals and personal encounters to express her vision of a united humanity. 
 

Muriel Smith Ann Buckles
Muriel Smith and her co-star in The Crowning Experience, Ann Buckles, in St Gallen, Switzerland

 

She and numerous other committed artists created The Crowning Experience, a musical based on the life of pioneering black American educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, and took it to Atlanta. It was the first show in the city where black and white members of the audience were seated equally. Residents maintained that its four-month run contributed to the integration of the city without further violence.

 

Muriel Smith Voice of the Hurricane
Muriel Smith in Voice of the Hurricane

 

In The New York Times she explained, ‘Born and raised with the race question in America, I have through my life and through my career tried to bring an answer to this problem. I discovered that the answer to that great wound in this nation could begin in my heart and in my life. It meant I had to be honest about my past, clarify motives, and unselfishly to strike out with no thought of personal gain or ambition, with the love for the world that comes when we surrender our wills to be wholly committed to the power of God.’

I discovered that the answer to that great wound in this nation could begin in my heart and in my life.

Both The Crowning Experience and another play written for Muriel, Voice of the Hurricane, were made into feature films and shown all over the world. Muriel often travelled with them, speaking to the audiences after the screenings.

 

Muriel Smith Frank Buchman Peter Howard
Muriel Smith in Caux with Frank Buchman and Peter Howard

 

In the early 1970s, Muriel returned to America to care for her aging mother in Richmond, Virginia. After her mother's death she herself contracted cancer, and while under treatment gave recitals and theatre performances. In 1984 she received an award from the National Council of Negro Women for her services to the arts and to the community.

Shortly before her death the next year, she said, ‘I felt that my country needed the healing (and still needs it) that could be found in facing the moral dilemma of judging people of the human family racially rather than on the basis of character. One of the choices I made was to give up my personal career in order to make such a statement.’

On her piano at Caux, there is an invitation: ‘If you play, do so with a full heart and Muriel’s generosity of spirit!’

If you play, do so with a full heart.

Muriel Smith piano 1

Discover a selection of Christmas carols, sung by Muriel Smith

 

__________________________________________________________________________

 

Watch The Crowning Experience (1960)

 

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________

 

Watch Voice of the Hurricane (1964)

 

 

__________________________________________________________________________

 

Discover a film from our archives on the Hollywood premiere of The Crowning Experience

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

This story is part of our series 75 Years of Stories about individuals who found new direction and inspiration through Caux, one for each year from 1946 to 2021. If you know a story appropriate for this series, please do pass on your ideas by email to John Bond or Yara Zhgeib. If you would like to know more about the early years of Initiatives of Change and the conference centre in Caux please click here and visit the platform For A New World.

 

 

Featured Story
Off
Event Categories
75 stories 75th anniversary

related stories

Ramez Salame credit: Inner Change

1968: Ramez Salame – ‘I gave away my gun’

Ramez Salamé was a 21-year-old law student from Beirut, Lebanon, when he took part in a leadership training course for young people in Caux – a precursor of the scores of similar programmes which have...

Teame Mebrahtu photo: John Bond

1967: Teame Mebrahtu – ‘It’s immaterial where I live’

Teame Mebrahtu came to Caux in 1967, five years after his homeland of Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia. The liberation struggle – which was to continue for three decades – was gaining momentum. Resentm...

Buth Diu (photo Arthur Strong)

1966: Buth Diu – Not who is right but what is right

In 1966, a senior Sudanese politician, Buth Diu, presented the London headquarters of Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) with spears and a hippotamus leather shield, as a token of his desir...

Robert Carmichael and Indian

1965: Robert Carmichael - Industry which puts people first

In 1965, the first freely negotiated agreement between industrialized and developing nations on the price of a raw material was signed in Rome. This pioneering accord was in large part the work of an ...

Daw Nyein Tha (from Joyful revolutionary) square

1964: Daw Nyein Tha – ‘When I point my finger at my neighbour’

You never knew who you might meet in the Caux kitchens in the 1960s. The kitchen which prepared dishes for Asian guests was presided over by a small Burmese woman in her 60s. Few would have guessed th...

Walking Buffalo portrait

1962: Chief Walking Buffalo – Respect and protect Mother Earth

In 1962, a documentary about a remarkable 62,000-mile journey was premiered in Caux. Two years before, Chief Walking Buffalo of the Nakoda (Stoney) Nation and Chief David Crowchild of the Tsuut’ina (S...

Patrick Colquhoun

1961 - Patrick Colquhoun: ‘That week changed my life’

‘Papers about Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives of Change) sent to me by a friend over the previous three years invariably ended in the bin,’ wrote Patrick Colquhoun. But his first visit at the confe...

Marcel Grandy and Archbishop Makarios

1960 - Cyprus: 'Hope never dies'

There are few problems in the world that have not found some echo in the conferences and encounters in Caux since 1946. In 1960 Cyprus gained its independence, after several years of sometimes violent...

Lennart Segerstrale

1959 – Lennart Segerstråle: ‘Art must be dangerous to evil’

In 1959, a vast fresco was unveiled on the wall of the dining room of the Caux Palace. Its creator, the Finnish artist Lennart Segerstråle, chose the universal image of water to represent his vision o...

Caux school 4

1958 - Angela Elliott: At school in Caux

Angela Cook (later Elliott) arrived in Caux in 1958, aged four. She was one of some 40 children who lived in Caux at different times between 1955 and 1965, attending a small chalet school just up the ...

Jessie Bond 1945

1957 - Jessie Bond: 'I saw his greatness'

Jessie Bond was struggling to cope with four children and her husband’s frequent outbursts. She was seriously thinking of leaving him when they went to Switzerland to spend the summer in Caux. A time ...

Zeller family black and white

1956 – The Zellers: A family invested in Caux

‘We had the great joy of deciding to sell our house and give the money to Caux,’ Anneli Zeller told the conference on the 29 July 1956. ‘The man we sold it to was so impressed that he gave 10,000 Swis...

Freedom scene square

1955 - Freedom: 'Do you think you could write a play?'

‘We were catapulted into history,’ said Manasseh Moerane, one of the writers of Freedom. The play was seen by 30,000 people all over Europe and demand was so great that they decided to make a film. Fr...