The Southern Regional Council established the Lillian Smith award shortly after Smith's death in 1966. Internationally acclaimed as author of the controversial novel, Strange Fruit (1944), Lillian Smith was one of most liberal and outspoken of white, mid-twentieth century Southern writers on issues of social and racial injustice. When other Southern liberals were charting a cautious course on racial change, Smith boldly and persistently called for an end to segregation. For such boldness, she was often scorned by more moderate southerners, threatened by arsonists, and denied the critical attention she deserved as a writer. Yet she continued to write and speak for improved human relations and social justice throughout her life.
In 2004, the Southern Regional Council entered into a partnership with the University of Georgia Libraries to administer the award in partnership with the Dekalb County Public Library’s Georgia Center for the Book and Piedmont College’s Lillian E. Smith Center.