Seeing the Civil Rights movement first-hand

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 6:00pm
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On Monday Jan. 20, the country honored and remembered the leader of the American civil rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr., a minister and activist who fought for racial equality in America. Dr. King used the power of his words to raise awareness of the racism present in America during those turbulent times.

Robert Ellis Smith, a man who also lived a life in using writing as a championing voice, documented the racial inequality he witnessed in America through journalism.

From an article published by The Southern Courier in Smith’s words: “I became a journalist because I am very curious and have a short attention span... I was outraged that there were parts of the country that I couldn’t travel safely in, that others could not travel freely in. I was outraged that in parts of the U.S., persons were denied the right to vote, to get a decent job, to stay in travel accommodations or eat in a restaurant of their choice.”

“I went south to make sure these rights were available to all Americans. I was also motivated by the idea that my generation could be more effective using our skills and not merely march in demonstrations — which was not my style.”

Ben Smith, his son, passed along in an email a few words about his father and his civil rights work:

“My father’s time in Alabama is quite possibly my favorite topic to discuss, the proactive measures he took during that era make me extremely proud to be his son. People often wonder what they would do in that situation during the civil rights movement, and I take great pride in having definitive proof that my father acted when his country needed it most. In today’s world, people can just type something up from behind their keyboard and view that as active protest, but to uproot your life and physically go into the belly of the beast is a different level of activism in my opinion”.

After graduating from Harvard in 1962 and following a short Army stint, Smith moved to Montgomery, where he was the editor, reporter and manager for The Southern Courier. A weekly newspaper based in Montgomery, The Southern Courier covered the civil rights movement in the south from 1965 until 1968 (the newspaper would close the same year King was murdered). This newspaper focused on issues concerning racism, whereas mainstream newspapers neglected to discuss this topic; a paper for the people, and by the people.

He viewed the decision to contribute his time and efforts in the civil rights movement as an “‘act of patriotism’ — not to save black people, but to save his country” said his son Ben.

Taken from the YouTube video “The Southern Courier: A Paper for The People,” Smith discusses his moments of working with King and Rosa Parks: “When it occurred to me that it was the 10th anniversary of the [Montgomery] bus boycott, I just picked up the phone and called Martin Luther King in Atlanta, and said would you write a piece for us on the 10th anniversary, and he said ‘yes’. But the week went by, and our deadline was approaching, and I think whatever it was, was it Tuesday night we put it together? And Tuesday morning arrived a Western Union telegram, which was then the equivalent of email, and it was from Martin Luther King, Jr., with a wonderful, beautiful article on what the bus boycott not only meant to Montgomery, but to American history. He quoted Thucydides in the very first paragraph, which most editors probably would edit out, but he could translate all of that into lay terms, and reach the common person, and it was just a wonderful article. I called Rosa Parks at about the same time during that fall. She truly did not think anything she did was extraordinary, or a part of history. She couldn’t understand why I was asking, and she didn’t want to do it. And I kept asking, and really had to persuade her that people in Montgomery cared about her memory after 10 years. And I said, could I write it up from what I know, and I would ghost-write it, and get your approval? And that’s the arrangement we had. And in the end I read it to her over the telephone, and she said that’s fine, and you can put my byline on it. It was an extraordinary time for me.”

Smith was a man who dedicated his life and studies to helping the lives of others, a selfless commitment in hopes of bringing to light the injustices people of color face in America. Smith would continue to use his writing talents for others, working for major media outlets as a reporter and editor; a civil rights official for the United State government; and who also served on the District of Columbia Human Rights Commission in the 1980s.

In a time of frustration and racial turmoil in America, it is uplifting to learn of previous islanders who used their privilege and position to help those in need.

Smith passed away on July 25, 2018 at 77 years old.