NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ If the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. was alive today, the Nashville civil rights leader and pastor would be 100 years old.
His family decided the best way to mark the anniversary of his Oct. 28 birth and honor his legacy would be to help the next generation of activists learn from the experiences of their late patriarch and others who were on the front lines of the pursuit for racial equality in Nashville and beyond.
The Kelly Miller Smith Family Foundation gathered online Wednesday with the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School to offer a virtual symposium called “Activism Then and Now: Equipping for the Road Ahead.”
“We believe that there is some cross learning that can be available from what happened then and what is happening now, so we can make sure that we’re all making not just progress, but that we can achieve what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and that is freedom and liberation for all,” the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. said as he set the stage for the daylong conference in memory of his father.
Those tuning in to the foundation’s inaugural event heard from a slate of speakers discussing Smith’s influence as well as activism as it relates to faith, policy and justice.
The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr., who died in 1984, became the pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill in 1951. During his tenure, the Nashville church played a critical role in the civil rights fight, including serving as a staging ground for the activists working to desegregate downtown lunch counters. Smith also served as the assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School.
As they were for so many, Smith’s religious beliefs were the foundation for his civil rights work, his son said. They stayed in the fight “because of their desire to be faithful to what it is God has called them to do,” the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. said.
The Rev. James Lawson, who worked alongside the elder Smith and taught Nashville college students about Mahatma Gandhi-inspired nonviolent activism, spoke about the outsized role faith played in their work in the 1950s, 60s and beyond.
“All through the prophetic religion, which Jesus embodied out of the Hebrew Bible, the notion is clear. It is only love that can transform life. It is only love that can defeat cruelty and torture and wrong. It is only a goodness that comes out of the soul that can transform and defeat evil,” Lawson said during Wednesday’s symposium.
Lawson also participated in a panel discussion on faith and activism moderated by Joshua Dubois, who led the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Barack Obama’s administration. Other speakers included freedom rider Bernard Lafayette Jr., the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III who leads a congregation in Texas, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a denominational leader in the United Church of Christ and a Missouri pastor.
Together, they spoke about the role of the church during the civil rights movement and in the current fight to end police brutality and other injustices.
Blackmon became involved in the current movement following the death of Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri. Blackmon said today’s activists are building coalitions as well as studying strategy and history in their push for change.
But the young activists of today are not as connected to the church as the young activists were decades ago, Blackmon said. Her church is working on that and she would like to see other churches become more involved with efforts happening in the streets.
“We should be in the communities in ways that our young people know who we are even if we can’t call their names,” Blackmon said.