Civil rights icon, activist George Smith crosses over at 69

| May 8, 2013
George Smith speaks at the courthouse in Meridian, Miss. during an annual event to honor the memory of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. (Photo: courtesy Bennie Edwards)

George Smith speaks at the courthouse in Meridian, Miss. during an annual event to honor the memory of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. (Photo: courtesy Bennie Edwards)

(Graphic: Andy Kurzen)

(Graphic: Andy Kurzen)

Frost Illustrated Staff Report

FORT WAYNE—The city lost a friend and champion and the nation lost one of its most dedicated soldiers of the civil rights era when Brother George A. Smith made his transition April 29 at the age of 69.

A native of Meridian, Miss., Bro. Smith came of age during the turbulent ’60s. As an adherent to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of effecting change through nonviolent confrontation, Smith was involved in numerous marches and protests in the south, even being jailed on a number of occasions for boldly standing up for the civil rights of not just black people, but all people. He risked life and limb for the good of all, refusing to be silenced by the ever-present threat of violence in places like Philadelphia, Miss., the site of one of the most heinous acts of the civil rights era—the brutal 1964 murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Smith stood among other champions of justice who pressed on in the wake of those killings and even continued to travel back to Philadelphia each year, even during the past few years to annually participate in commemorative events to honor the work and memory of those slain activists.

While Smith, along with his wife Louise, who also was active in the movement, made his mark largely in the civil rights movement in the south, he went on to become an important part of the fabric of life in Fort Wayne. As an integral member of the Fort Wayne Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Club, which organizes the largest King Day celebration in this part of the country, Smith reached out to friends and colleagues in the movement from back in the ’60s to ensure that the organization had access to speakers and activists who had a direct line to the movement and the type of fire and commitment that could inspire people to keep pursuing the goal of social justice for all. Additionally, he helped the club to organize its acclaimed civil rights tour program which takes people south to places such as Philadelphia, Miss., the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. King was murdered by a sniper and other historic sites.

He and wife Louise also made regular presentations to students, not only teaching them about the civil rights movement from the perspective of someone who was there, but also introducing them to the practice of nonviolent resistance with graphic demonstrations on how to survive police beatings and water hose and dog attacks. During a 2008 interview for the Frost Illustrated MLK Special Edition, the Smiths talked about their nonviolence training and the cost—physical, economic and spiritual—of being dedicated to the movement. Even when being physically assaulted, they and others chose the discipline of nonviolence to achieve the end of justice.

“We could have fought back, but it wouldn’t have helped,” explained George Smith, touching the remnants of bites left on his hands from police dogs that had been turned on the crowd during those nonviolent protests. “We were rewarded because of nonviolence…

“We had intensive training on how to be nonviolent. You couldn’t go [on marches or protests] unless you were trained.”

While some might have decried a strategy of passive resistance in the face of brutality, Smith said it paid off, sharing a April 24, 1967 letter from the Department of Justice, which read:

“Dear Mr. Smith:

“After an investigation into complaints concerning possible violations of the federal public accommodations law at Sadka’s Sandwich Shop, Meridian, Mississippi, we concluded that in the future the management will provide equal service to all persons without regard to race or color.

“If you encounter or know of difficulties in obtaining service on an equal basis, please notify us.

“Sincerely, John Doar, Assistant Attorney General Civil Rights Division

“By: Elihu Hurwitz, Attorney, Southwestern Section.”

As he explained in that same interview, however, nonviolent resistance was the rule in mass protests but wasn’t always the case when it came to protecting home and family, explaining that people were ready to stand up and protect themselves at home.

Again, there was a price for his involvement in the struggle—like the loss of his job when his employer  at Anderson-Ramora Hospital in Meridian recognized he was involved in civil rights protests. He wasn’t alone in his loss.

“People lost homes, jobs,” said Louise Smith in that same interview.

George Smith, a man of faith, recognized his firing as a blessing and opportunity to help others.

“When I lost my job, I went fulltime in the movement,” he said.

Even after moving to Fort Wayne years later, Smith remained active in civil rights work, eventually finding a place to keep the legacy established by stalwarts of the struggle alive through the local MLK Club. The late Glyn Gleason, founder and president of the MLK Club approached Smith about becoming a board member. Initially, commuting to his job at General Motors’ Defiance, Ohio plant kept him too busy to be actively involved in the club, although he supported the organization by regularly attending events. After retiring in 2001, however, Smith and his wife both joined the MLK Club board and remained active in the group.

“I wanted to be involved with some civil rights group locally. Matter of fact, when I was first involved with the club, I got an invitation to speak in Findley, Ohio, but I cancelled that because I wanted to do something local. I wanted to do something at home,” said Smith, during a 2010 interview.

A lover of music, particularly gospel music, Bro. Smith was a well-known figure in the region as a former president and business manager of the United Male Chorus, which includes men from a number of churches in the area.

Bro. Smith was active in numerous activities in the community including the local GM Retirees Club, serving as vice president for years.

Many in the community already have said that Smith’s presence and his work will be missed for years to come.

The viewing for George Smith is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., May 10 at Greater Progressive Baptist Church—Smith’s church home—followed by funeral services at 11 a.m., May 11.

See also: The community remembers George Smith.

 

This article originally appeared in our May 8, 2013 issue.

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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