NEW BETHLEHEM – To many throughout the Redbank Valley area, the Rev. Roger Smith is a pastor who retired — from a lengthy stint of service — to an Armstrong County farm that has been in his family for well over a century.
And while he is, at 92, a familiar figure who remains active in the community, he had a close-up familiarity with a pivotal personality and event in the nation’s history. The death of that personality from history was nationally remembered last week, and for Smith, it brought back memories of how he was once affiliated with the one whose life and death was commemorated on April 4.
That was the day that marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose leadership was instrumental in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His influence on the movement did not cease when he died by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn., and that influence continues today, not only for his instrumental role in seeking to give African Americans equal footing in this country, but also for how he sought to bring about his goal of equality. One of his many passionate speeches — “I Have A Dream” — is considered one of the most moving public utterances in our nation’s history.
Through a combination of factors, the Rev. Roger Smith had found himself “temporarily” living and serving in Mississippi, where Dr. King’s influence was growing, and where there were some very deep pockets of white resistance to the concept of giving equality to black Americans. That “temporary” involvement for Smith ultimately translated into him eventually spending about 30 years of his ministry in the southern state to which he had been twice transplanted from United Methodist pastorates in North Dakota.
Smith reflected last week about a long chapter in his life that he admits most local folks don’t know about, and for several reasons. Among those reasons are the fact that he just has not made it a topic of most of his discussions, and also the fact that he was gone from the local area for so many years that many local residents today did not know him before he retired in the 1980s and established his home where his parents had long lived.
Another key reason, Smith said, is that his involvement with the civil rights era was a development that “just seemed to happen.”
“At the time I was involved with the movement, I did not stop to think how the whole process may be viewed in the future,” Smith said. “We just went forward with what we felt we had to do.”
The retired clergyman says he could not have envisioned how he ended up spending a total of about three decades serving in the South and being involved with the civil rights movement into which he was transplanted from pastorates in North Dakota. His start in life had actually occurred in New Kensington, where his father had moved the family from northern Armstrong County to accept employment with the Aluminum Company of America — Alcoa — during the Depression. His father was originally from Putneyville, his mother from Deanville. Initially, Smith’s father worked in the coal mines and later as an insurance company representative. The widespread impact of the Depression ended his stint with the insurance business, so the family relocated to New Kensington for the father’s 25-year career with Alcoa.
After graduation from high school, Smith, responding to a call to the Christian ministry, entered Taylor University in the state of Indiana, an independent non-denominational college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion. Following that preparation, he accepted a pastorate in North Dakota, where he served for about two years in small country churches. The next chapter in his life took him to Asbury College in Kentucky, and after two years he returned to North Dakota for another two-year pastorate before enrolling in Drew College and Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he earned his master of divinity degree.
Then North Dakota called again, and he spent five more years at another church in that adopted state until he responded to a call from the National Council of Churches (NCC). That organization was seeking pastors who were willing to go to Mississippi, where there was a need for skilled leadership to assist in predominately black communities where those residents were responding to the national movement to seek true equality in society, and where the traditions in those communities often regarded blacks as less than equal to whites.
Smith responded to the call for help from the NCC, and once more he put his North Dakota ministry on hold to return to Mississippi for what he terms as a “long hot summer.” He and a Presbyterian pastor from his North Dakota town left together and went to Mississippi for three weeks.
“We were flabbergasted,” Smith said of the poor living conditions of so many of the black families as well as the racial tensions experienced in the area where they were serving, as well as throughout much of the South.
“We were involved in voter registration efforts and whatever else we could do to try to improve conditions for those folks. We could only find one place where we could safely stay. We went to Jackson, and while there news came that in another area of Mississippi three young adults — two whites and one black — volunteering for the cause were reported missing. Their bodies were found beneath an earthen dam in Philadelphia County in eastern Mississippi.”
Continuing, the clergyman said, “From that experience — we stayed in black homes — shacks, really — we did whatever we could to help blacks and some whites. Out-of-state cars were watched. Even the police would stop such cars, especially if the cars had passengers of mixed races. We had to be very careful where we went ... it was practically impossible for blacks to be able to register to vote.”
He cited the case of a black lady who was jailed and beaten badly because she was driving a bus (transporting blacks) because the bus was “of the wrong color.”
“Probably 80 percent of the black families lived in what would be called shacks,” he said. “Most employers would not hire blacks. Without better incomes they could not improve their living conditions.”
The program with which he was affiliated was under the auspices of the NCC. ”There were a few white churches who were sympathetic to the cause of racial equality. A lot of (sympathetic) United Methodist ministers were driven out. One stayed and was persecuted.”
Once more Smith, along with the Presbyterian pastor with whom he had served churches in North Dakota before they served in Mississippi, returned to the former state.
“We went back to our churches in North Dakota. We didn’t plan to return to Mississippi. We heard that 45 black churches had been burned to the ground in the southern state. The next year I was eligible for a sabbatical from my church in North Dakota and I decided to take that year to go back to Mississippi — that was in 1955 — and went to the small town of Edwards, about 25 miles west of Jackson.
“The NCC had taken over a small college and that’s where I stayed for a year. There was a big old mansion that had been built about the Civil War era. We were able to have meetings there — spiritual outings — meetings to talk about the general situations in the area and what could be done [to improve the general conditions for the blacks].”
Smith said that it was at this former college, then known as the Mount Beulah Conference Center, where he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was in charge of the conference center,” he explained. “We had a lady by the name of Thelma Barnes who was a well-educated black lady, who was active in her church, very efficient, and was hired by the NCC as a secretary at the center. Her desk was in a room visible from the outside, and there were complaints about a black being in that secretarial position, so we had to relocate her desk to quiet the complaints.”
He said he had not planned to stay in Mississippi where he was, but said the NCC “asked me to stay on. There were white Mississippians who supported what we were doing and they often paid a price for that. I was asked to stay on for a year to help. I contacted the United Methodist Church conference in North Dakota to see if I could stay [in Mississippi] and they approved the extension. They actually raised money for our cause and a stipend for me. They supported me and took loads of clothing down. A couple of the laymen [from North Dakota] actually came and observed what we were doing.”
Vital Role in Movement
The Rev. Smith emphasized that the civil rights movement, including what he was doing for the cause, was strongly supported by churches and church organizations like the NCC from around the country.
“I cannot over-state the vital role churches performed in helping support the civil rights efforts at that time in history,” he said. “People need to recognize and remember that vital role they played.”
The black Mississippians and the whites who affiliated with them “risked their lives” to show such support, he said, adding, “The KKK burned crosses on the lawns [of blacks or their supporters], and there were some shots fired into the homes where those folks lived. One such shot barely missed the woman in a North Dakota family visiting in our community.”
Reminiscing on his work in Jackson, Miss. during the height of the civil rights unrest, Smith recalled how he had learned that there reportedly had been a meeting of white men at a home where they were discussing plans to have Smith removed from the community because of his work there. He said the report came back to him through a black maid working in the home where the meeting was being held. She reported the discussion about the group taking some unspecified action against Smith because there was a pastor at the session and he convinced the other men to not take any steps to have the local pastor “removed.”
“I was very careful about my safety after that,” he commented.
“I recall one Sunday morning I was in Jackson and at the time there was a large white-race church where a group of 20-25 young black college students were approaching the church to see if the white church would accept them as worshippers,” Smith continued. “Standing in the church doorways were white men whose conduct indicated the black men would not be accepted. The black men decided to not escalate the issue.”
While in Mississippi, Smith said he and the other whites assisting in the black communities did spiritual as well as humanitarian work. Change did occur gradually, and he said ”healing came over the decades.” He said that such actions as the Freedom Marches were necessary to see the gradual acceptance by many of the blacks in their communities and across the country.
“Before that, it just didn’t happen,” Smith said.
Dr. King and
Rev. Smith Meet
The local pastor recalled how he first met Dr. King.
“There was a Memphis-to-Jackson march and I was involved in part of that,” he said, explaining that part of the reason for that march was to protest that Dr. King had been rejected in his effort to enroll at the University of Mississippi. “The university didn’t accept black students at that time. The march went through Philadelphia, Mississippi where Dr. King stood on the steps of the courthouse and delivered a powerful speech showing that the cause seeking equality would not go away. We held the march to show we weren’t backing down in the drive to gain equality for the blacks.
“As we were heading up to the courthouse, there were National Guard troops lining the streets on both sides, supposedly to protect the marchers,” Smith continued. “After the speech, many marchers were on the streets returning to their cars when a speeding car containing two young white men came down the street, scattering the marchers like the parting of the Red Sea. The young men were stopped by the National Guardsmen, but we never heard what, if anything, happened to the men.”
Smith recalls how he once stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis — the site where Dr. King was later assassinated on the balcony.
“We couldn’t find many places to meet,” Smith said. “We were there for a three-day spiritual retreat.”
Sentiments ran high against the blacks as well as the whites, such as Smith, who were working to help bring about equal rights for the blacks.
“Dr. King and his associates were labeled as ‘the scum of the earth’ by the daily newspaper in Jackson,” Smith recalls. “Dr. King and the other leaders in the civil rights movement were very strong advocates of practicing civil disobedience though engaging in peaceful protest and activism. Non-violence was always stressed.”
Recalling his experiences working in the civil rights campaign, Smith said he not only met Dr. King, but also many of the others who were black leaders campaigning for the right of those members of that race to be treated and respected as whites or other racial groups. Among those leaders Smith met were Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta; Dr. Ralph Abernathy, a very close confidant of Dr. King; John Lewis, longtime and current member of the U.S. House of Representatives; William and Bessie Givhann, who ultimately won a civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court; Thelma Barnes, an outstanding woman leader for the cause; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I got to know him fairly well,” Smith said of Jesse Jackson.
Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968. in Memphis, where he had gone to lead a march in support of striking sanitation workers. Later charged and convicted in his killing was James Earl Ray, but that conviction ultimately came to be challenged by parties who believed evidence showed that the assassination had been the work of one or more other parties.
For Roger Smith, that period of American history is now well in his rearview mirror. The soft-spoken retired pastor recalls other events of his life as well. For example, he was in the process of being trained as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II when the war ended. Had he completed the pilot training, he would have been discharged as an officer rather than a corporal. But perhaps he was spared aerial combat because — as he says today — “the Lord watched over me.”
After Mississippi, he returned to his farm outside of New Bethlehem that dates back to family ownership through his mother, who died there in 1995 at the age of 102.