By Larry Lee
Special to Frost Illustrated
Long-time Fort Wayne resident George Smith died Monday, April 29 at age 69. What made Smith’s life so noteworthy did not play out during his last 46 years, when he lived here. That occurred during the three tumultuous years immediately before his moving to town from Meridian, Miss.
Blacks in Fort Wayne who knew him and what he achieved before coming to Fort Wayne regard him as a hero. But in the sense “none of us are free unless all of us are free,” he was a hero to whites as well as to blacks.
Why and how a hero? Smith was a courageous, tireless warrior and front-line leader in the Civil Rights Movement. That movement was the most significant domestic struggle this nation has endured since the Civil War. He played a prominent role in its overturning Jim Crow throughout Mississippi, throughout the South, and, indeed, in assuring racial justice throughout this nation. Victory came in the form of sweeping federal Civil Rights legislation, starting in 1964.
If they understand the term at all, most folks in Fort Wayne—certainly most whites—have little conception how of abjectly evil Jim Crow was. Jim Crow was de jure racial segregation legislated after 1876 by all states in the Old Confederacy South. It covered all forms of public accommodations. Those segregation laws insidiously evolved over time, into the 1960s, into systematic deprivation of basic political, economic, educational and social opportunities for blacks.
Smith was only 20 when in 1963 he joined the staff of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in his hometown of Meridian. He soon was promoted to office director. Nothing in his humble background gave hint to the uncommon courage he was destined to display during the next three years.
From 1963 through 1965, he organized and led peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and protest rallies for the cause of racial justice. Indeed, Martin Luther King was the eloquent voice and unquestioned champion of the Movement. But it was lieutenants in the field like Smith in every large city in the South and many smaller ones who led the foot soldiers and who suffered the brunt of the brutal push back from the opposition.
Who was the opposition? Virtually every vocal member of white society in the South. Whites were not superior so much, if at all, numerically in the Deep South. However, they monopolized political, economic and social power. Moreover, they were passionately committed to protecting and maintaining the Jim Crow way of life.
The movement’s offensive strategy centered on high-profile disruptive civil disobedience. Its defensive strategy, when its protesters were confronted and assaulted (which would be always) allowed only passive nonviolent resistance—really, no resistance at all. On the other hand, in responding to movement rallies, whites were anything but peaceful, passive and non-violent. Mobs of whites, unrestrained by sympathetic law enforcement—all white, of course—resorted to jeering, name-calling, rock-throwing and other physical assault to counter movement demonstrations.
When such tactics did not deter the protesters, the local police, county sheriff deputies, and/or state troopers waded in with billy clubs, cattle prods, high-pressure water hose, and attack police dogs. Arrests for disturbing the peace and incarceration in deplorable jail cells, with abusive treatment, were part of the routine.
Leaders like Smith endured this cycle of vitriol, mayhem, injury, arrest and imprisonment with every public protest. The script never varied. They could brace themselves for the next battle because it was they who scheduled the day, time, and venue for the inevitable confrontation. They set aside certainty of abuse—not merely fear of abuse—to stay the course, protest after protest. That is real courage.
Certainty of a hurtful fate was one matter. Fear of the unknown was another. What was more intimidating than white mobs and police was the threat of killing, maiming, and arson by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan wrought its terror under the cover of night—and under the cover of hoods and sheets. It do so under protection of local law enforcement. Indeed, many law enforcers were Klan members. Many were Klan leaders.
Movement leaders like Smith never knew when in the night, what night, where or how the threats would be delivered. They just knew they were coming. Of course, the Klan acted upon their threats often enough to notch up the fear factor in those it threatened.
In the early 1960s in no place was the Jim Crow and its inhumanity to blacks more pervasive, more oppressive, more unforgiving, more suffocating than small-town and rural Mississippi. In no place was the Klan more tyrannical, more relentless, more zealous in stamping out opposition to the status quo. This was the environment in which George Smith willingly put his life and limb on the line every day, every week for three years. Countless beatings, countless dog bites, countless arrests, countless jailings, countless abuse while in custody—still, he organized and led the protests.
Front yard cross-burning, death threats telephoned anonymously in the wee hours or scrawled on a note tacked to his front door by the Klan—Smith, his wife Louise, and his two small children suffered them all. Still, he soldiered on. Not even the Klan’s heinously brutal murders in June 1964 of his Meridian CORE friends and co-workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney (immortalized by the movie Mississippi Burning and the documentary Eyes on the Prize) could deter him from his commitment to justice and racial equality.
I measure a hero on four criteria: (1) the righteousness of his cause, (2) his leadership role in that cause, (3) how daunting the challenge he faces, and (4) how clear and present the danger to life and bodily sanctity. By any standard, George Smith was a true hero. He never sought recognition, did not value celebrity. Yet every resident in his hometown, white and black, should know his name and recognize his heroism.
This article originally appeared in our May 15, 2013 issue.