A Birmingham minister carried a torch while Martin Luther King was in jail. I sat in his church for seventeen years and never knew.
In the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched what came to be known as the Birmingham Campaign. The opening thrust of the Campaign involved a boycott of Birmingham businesses that supported segregation. It was during this time that Dr. King was jailed and wrote the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. The Campaign began to falter at this point due to dwindling numbers of supporters willing to risk arrest. So, the next phase began: The Children’s Crusade. Students were chosen because their arrests wouldn’t harm families financially. This period of unrest produced the iconic images of protesters being firehosed and attacked by police dogs.
A thirty-three year old Birmingham pastor named Nelson H. Smith lead marches during this period. He used his pulpit to spread the radical idea that all people had, in fact, been created equal. He became the leader of Birmingham’s very first chapter of the SCLC.
For the majority of my childhood, I sat in a pew every Sunday listening to that man preach. I had no idea that I was listening to a man who had devoted his life to making mine better. I was a kid; I didn’t want to be in church. I wanted to be playing sports or watching cartoons. I never knew that those things were available to me because of the work of people such as Nelson H. Smith.
N.H. Smith doesn’t have a national holiday in his honor. He doesn’t have any schools named after him (he started a library and built an apartment complex but he didn’t name them after himself). He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. We’ve forgotten so many of the foot-soldiers in the war against racism. There is a statue, though. In Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram park, there is a statue of three ministers kneeling to pray for a better future. One of those men is Reverend Smith.
Why He’s Forgotten: Essentially, he stood in the shadow of a giant. The entire country pays respects to Martin Luther King, Jr and neglects the men and women who were beside him. When the Birmingham Police arrested MLK, they thought they could defuse the Civil Rights Movement. While MLK was in that Birmingham Jail, many others like N.H. Smith carried his torch. The Civil Rights Movement was not one man; it was one idea and that idea was freedom.
Read more about Nelson H. Smith.