Among the activists of the modern civil rights era in Mississippi, arguably none was more committed to the movement’s causes and objectives than Rev. Robert L. T. Smith. Born on 19 December 1902 in Utica, Hinds County, Smith was the eldest of the five children of James M. Smith and Theresa Schuler Smith. The boy was named in honor of his enslaved maternal grandfather, Robert Shuler. While growing up in rural Hinds County, Smith had both white and black friends. His youthful experiences also included exposure to many instances of inequality, prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Hinds County’s vastly underfunded and separate schools for African American children offered classes only through eighth grade, and as Smith recalled, the building was constructed of “ordinary planks” where “he sat on a rough bench during school hours” and attempted to learn using discarded supplies such as crayon stubs from white schools.
These early life experiences profoundly affected Smith, even prompting him to wonder at one point whether he could do anything to change the system. He ultimately answered that question in the affirmative and as an adult committed himself to the struggle for a more just and equitable American society. Smith began by advising poor sharecropping families on how to improve their economic lot, emphasizing increasing their independence by purchasing land (an acre or two if possible) and acquiring farm animals and livestock.
When he was nineteen, Smith became an elementary school teacher, though he possessed only an eighth-grade education. He taught for a year in Copiah County for a salary of twenty-eight dollars per month before moving to Quitman County, where he earned fifty dollars per month. In 1923 he moved to Jackson and secured a position as a mail carrier with the US Postal Service, serving the North State Street area near Millsaps and Belhaven Colleges until his retirement in 1957.
Smith joined the Jackson Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s and over the next half century was one of its most active and committed members. Prior to the 1950s most of Mississippi’s NAACP branches were at best holding operations with irregular and infrequent activities. The Jackson Branch, however, functioned continuously from the 1930s onward, primarily because of the collective efforts of Smith and others who enjoyed relative economic independence from local whites.
As the Mississippi civil rights struggle gained traction in the 1950s, Smith emerged as one of its most energetic and enthusiastic partisans. Smith became an early confidant of and adviser to the NAACP’s young Mississippi field secretary, Medgar Evers, and Smith was highly regarded throughout the movement. In 1962 he and Merrill Winston Lindsey became the first twentieth-century African Americans in Mississippi to seek election to the US Congress, though they lost the contests. Over the ensuing quarter century Smith continued his involvement in civil rights actions while pastoring two churches.
Smith served as one of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s alternate delegates to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was a founding board member of Mississippi Action for Progress, a Head Start and antipoverty program, and was one of the original plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the broadcast license of Jackson television station WLBT that resulted in the station’s transfer to a new ownership group headed by Smith. In 1990 Smith’s testimony played an important role in the indictment and subsequent conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for Evers’s murder.
Smith died in October 1993.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Erle Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 1953–1973 (1990)
- Mississippi Action for Progress Newsletter (April 1984)
- Ronald Smothers, New York Times (19 December 1990)