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LEGACY: Rev. James E. Smith

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell

Shock and grief gripped the Union Grove Baptist Church family in Raleigh Sunday when the congregation learned that its pastor had passed after extended illness.

That news also quickly spread through the ranks of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733 that "Rev. Smith was gone."

Anthony J. McGhee, a senior staff negotiator, recalls the resolute and forceful style of the 1733's leader from the turbulent '60s through the early 1990s when he retired.

JamesSmith"I came onto the AFSCME staff in 1993, one year after Rev. Smith retired," said McGhee. "I started out as a maintenance worker with the Memphis Housing Authority, and I remember seeing that the city and the union were at an impasse after a marathon negotiation.

"Aretha Payne was the chief negotiator. It was three or four in the morning, and she called Rev. Smith to report the impasse. He got there and brought both sides together. And in that bold, forceful style of his, Rev. Smith got through the impasse with skillful negotiations and that signature expertise in mediation. He was a real champion of the working man."

Evelyn Liggins, who worked with Rev. Smith for two decades as his office receptionist, remembered her employer and friend as an impassioned labor leader who "didn't back down" and wasn't afraid "to ruffle a few feathers."

His own words

The PBS civil rights documentary, "Eyes On The Prize," aired a telling interview with Rev. Smith as he recalls how the "I Am A Man" movement took shape in 1968. Smith and other labor leaders had high expectations in a meeting with city council members in chambers.

Prior to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. getting involved, marches were broken up by police using tear gas and billy clubs, according to Rev. Smith.

"We stumbled back to Clayborn Temple, crying and feeling dehumanized. We were going to have a mass meeting because morale was so low, but police surrounded the church and shot teargas inside.

"People were running... There were presiding elders, bishop, pastors in this march. The pillars of the community. I couldn't believe that the police department would fire upon this crowd. We were law-abiding citizens. And here we were trying to do something constructive. Pillars of the community. We had no axe to grind. But they fired upon us and that was the turning point. We were extremely angry. And if they would fire upon us, they would fire upon anybody. We were more determined than ever to stand up for our brothers. We declared to the world, 'I Am A Man.'"

A lasting legacy

"I did not have the opportunity to work with Rev. Smith, but I would not be here were it not for the three decades he labored in the labor and civil rights movements," said Chad Johnson, AFSCME 1733 executive director.

"Not only that, but three generations of black politicians owe their success in public office to Rev. Smith," he added.

"Because of Rev. Smith's work, we have enjoyed a growing, middle and working class because of the expansion of the union. We owe a great debt to Rev. Smith. He has left an enduring legacy at AFSCME and the organized labor movement in the Mid-South. We join Rev. Smith's family and friends in mourning this great loss."


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