Born on 20 December 1937 in Terry, Mississippi, Robert Smith was the ninth of Joseph and Wilma Smith’s twelve children. The family operated a cattle farm on land purchased by his grandfather during Reconstruction: the farm eventually grew to more than two hundred acres, and the Smiths raised vegetables, pigs, and chickens in addition to cows. Although Robert attended a segregated school and was aware of racism, Joseph Smith shielded his children from segregated businesses and most contact with the local white community. Travel was rare among Mississippi youth at that time, black or white, but as a teenager Smith visited Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and in his role as a national officer in the New Farmers of America even met Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
An excellent student, Smith decided to become a doctor. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Tougaloo College in 1957 before enrolling at Howard University Medical School. Mississippi had no integrated medical school at the time, and the state operated a program that provided five-thousand-dollar scholarships to African Americans attending medical school outside the state. Smith graduated from Howard in 1961, interned in Chicago, and was preparing to accept a residency in obstetrics and gynecology when the draft board called him back to Mississippi.
At the time, Mississippi had about fifty black doctors—roughly one for every seventeen thousand black citizens, the highest ratio in the country. Fifty-two of Mississippi’s eighty-two counties had no practicing black physicians, and many white doctors refused to see black patients unless they could pay in cash. While Mississippi acknowledged its need for more African American doctors, the state refused to train them and had difficulty attracting those trained elsewhere. Aside from the Jim Crow policies that affected all black citizens, the state’s African American doctors were barred from most hospitals and found that their roles as community leaders made them targets of white segregationists.
Smith’s return to Mississippi coincided with a time of tremendous civil rights activity in the state, and he began what he termed his “real education” and underwent his “great awakening.” He began working closely with civil rights movement members, especially Medgar Evers, and treating civil rights workers and students at Tougaloo College, which was considered a radical institution because of its aggressive stance on integration. After Evers’s assassination in June 1963, Smith traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to join an integrated protest against the American Medical Association’s discriminatory practices. He became known as the “doctor to the movement,” an association that won him few friends among the southern white community and earned him a few trips to jail.
Smith frequently treated civil rights workers injured during demonstrations and served as Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal physician during the 1966 March against Fear. Smith also worked closely with the Council of Federated Organizations and founded the Medical Committee for Human Rights to train and supervise the northern doctors who helped care for the hundreds of volunteers who traveled south for Freedom Summer in 1964 and in subsequent years. He worked with the Delta Ministry to improve poor black Mississippians’ access to and quality of care. He served as medical director for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, one of the earliest and most successful federally sponsored Head Start Programs, was active in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and was instrumental in the creation of the Mound Bayou Delta Health Center.
Since its founding in 1963, Smith has headed the Mississippi Family Health Center (now known as Central Mississippi Health Services), which was the state’s first multispecialty clinic to provide care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. It now operates three facilities in the Jackson area. He has also worked to educate future doctors through adjunct professorships at Meharry Medical College, Tufts University, Jackson State University, and Brown University. In 2014 the Mississippi Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning honored Smith with its Community Service Award “for his lifetime of service to the state and nation and his commitment to improving the health care profession, strengthening our communities and improving race relations for all citizens of the state of Mississippi.” In part as a consequence of Smith’s efforts, Mississippi had more than 350 African American doctors by the 2010s.
- John Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care (2009)
- “IHL Press Release: Robert Smith, M.D. Receives Community Service Award, MSU’s Professor Named Diversity Educator of the Year” (3 March 2014), Mississippi Public Universities website, www.mississippi.edu/pr/newsstory.asp?ID=1083
- “Oral History with Robert Smith, M.D.” (2000), Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/coh/id/16683/rec/11
- Thomas J. Ward Jr., Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South (2003)