From Civil War to civil rights, Frank Smith Jr. lives black history

Avis Thomas-Lester, Urban News Service | 3/3/2016, 12:42 p.m.
Action-oriented life includes helping found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and establishing the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum ...
Thirty years after he left the South, Frank Smith helped establish the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum on Washington’s V Street, NW. It honors the war’s 209,000 black fighters. (Photo: Sharif Talib)

Frank Smith Jr. emerged from a Mississippi jail and learned that he was wanted – by Uncle Sam.

The 20-year-old civil rights worker had been locked up for three weeks in Greenwood for helping blacks register to vote.

“After I was released from jail, I called my mother at home in Georgia to tell her I was OK,” said Smith, 73, of Washington, D.C. “She told me I had a draft notice to go to Vietnam.”

It was 1963. Draft board officials asked if he’d had any scrapes with the law. Smith said he had three federal cases pending, thanks to his civil-rights work.

“They told me they didn’t want me in the Army,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘Thank you very much!’ and I went back to Mississippi.”

Nevertheless, Smith has always appreciated service members – especially those who shielded rights that they were denied.

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC 200,000 visitors annually. Construction will soon begin on a $4-million expansion. (Photo: Sharif Talib)

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, DC 200,000 visitors annually. Construction will soon begin on a $4-million expansion. (Photo: Sharif Talib)

Thirty years after he left the South, Smith helped establish the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum on Washington’s V Street, NW. It honors the war’s 209,000 black fighters. More than 200,000 people visit it annually. Construction will soon begin on a $4-million expansion.

The museum hosts programs and events on the Civil Rights Movement, including last year’s service for Julian Bond. He, like Smith, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Smith said the museum links Civil War heroes with those who stood up after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus. “They were the first civil rights activists,” he said of the soldiers.

From 1962 to 1968, Smith battled on Mississippi’s front lines. He was threatened, beaten and saw friends die.

“You had to be able to function in an environment of terror and not be paralyzed,” said Courtland Cox, 75, of Northwest Washington, who worked with Smith in Mississippi.

Born in 1942 on a Newman, Ga., peach plantation, Smith’s father farmed and drove a truck. His mother, Flora, now 96, reared their eight children.

Smith excelled as a student and debater. He was 12 in 1955 when he learned about the racist murder of Emmett Till, 14, in Money, Miss. Smith related to the martyred Chicago youth.

“Growing up in Georgia at that time, for a black boy, was a frightening experience,” Smith said. “Learning how to act around white people was a survival skill.”

At 16, he entered Morehouse College. He became president of the Atlanta Student Movement and helped establish SNCC.

Smith journeyed to Holly Springs, Miss., to register voters in 1962. He lived at Rust College and worked with its NAACP chapter.

“Sundays were our big days,” said Leslie Burl McLemore, 75, a close friend. “We … traveled to churches to talk to people about registering to vote so they could be first-class citizens.”

Two years later, Smith, Bond, activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Lawrence Guyot, and others, formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Their demand to be seated in place of Mississippi’s all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention was blocked. However, related negotiations with the White House hastened passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which “revolutionized Mississippi,” Smith said.