Members of the Smiley family sharing the love with Guest of Honor Ruthie Smiley at the family’s latest gathering. JC Smiley is shown third from right. Photo by Tony Jones

By Tony Jones

While Memphis city leaders grapple with the crime rate, I stumbled upon a Thanksgiving story that goes a long way to answering some of the questions. There’s even a lesson in it for the so-called “woke” social media activists and other know-it-all’s that constantly criticize everyone but themselves. 

Is it just me or have you noticed that any discussion about family, faith, and self-responsibility is missing in the debate about crime? Thugs are nothing new. When I was a front-page reporter for the Tri State Defender, I knew I had to pull back from covering crime because if I heard another woman tell me “That’s just what he do,” after her teenage son got caught driving another stolen car without a license, I was going to go to jail myself for felony cussing. 

In turn, it was refreshing to meet the Smiley family. I was working on a Sunday on my side job driving a non-emergency transportation van. A family in Mississippi wanted their oldest living relative transported from a nursing home in Memphis to their regular family gathering in Hernando. The contact’s name was JC Smiley. We have a city councilman in Memphis named JB Smiley, Jr. but I dismissed the coincidence. He soon arrived. 

But what really impressed me was, as we were getting her out of the van, two of the teenage male members of the family politely came up, greeted me and asked if there was anything they could help me with. No frowns. No underwear windows. It reminded me of when the black community enforced our own morals as we faced American racism. 

The Smiley family comes from Marks, Mississippi, where their parents TJ Smiley and Irene Smiley worked on a plantation until they could buy their own farm. The youngest of 12, JC recalls, “My father and my older brothers actually jacked the house up off the ground and made it livable.”

They still own the farm, now on 100 Smiley Road, and adhere to the lessons learned there. Said JC, “My father worked the stew out of us. From sunup to sundown. He said it would keep us out of trouble, and it did. All through college. We raised cotton and soybeans. I couldn’t pick but 100 pounds, but my older brother JB could pick 400!”

Father TJ began the family tradition of attending Coahoma Community College and further educating themselves. They had to get back to the farm after their classes and put the work in. Day and night. Against hardcore racism in the worst state in the nation.

“The way my father raised us is that if I had food in my freezer, my family better have food in their freezer. If I had money in my pocket, my family better have money in their pockets. Ruthie is 85 now, and she worked hard so all of us could have something.” 

How do we return these traditions to the neighborhoods that need them? Put that back into the conversation about crime. Maybe we will have more teenagers coming up to shake our hands instead of snatching the car keys from them. 

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