1963: Muriel Smith – A voice for racial healing

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.



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