Kelly Miller Smith Sr. (1920-1984)

Kelly Miller Smith outside of the First Baptist Church, Nashville, TN, April 4, 1964
Photograph by Jack Corn, courtesy The Tennessean

Kelly Miller Smith Sr, named after the prominent educator and civil rights leader Kelly Miller, was a Baptist preacher, author, and civil rights activist best known for participating in the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, Tennessee. Smith was born on October 28, 1920, in the black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to Terry Monroe and Priscilla (Anderson) Smith. At an early age, Smith attended Magnolia Avenue High School in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and graduated in 1938. After graduating from high school, Smith attended Tennessee State A&I University (Now Tennessee State University) and transferred to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He received his bachelor’s degree in religion in 1942 from Morehouse College.

Smith then attended graduate school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he received his Master of Divinity degree in 1945. Smith would become pastor at Mount Heroden Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, serving from 1946 to 1951. In 1951, Smith became pastor at First Colored Baptist Church (Now First Baptist Church Capitol Hill) in Nashville, Tennessee. While in Nashville, Smith became president of the Nashville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1955, Smith and 12 parents filed a lawsuit against the Nashville Board of Education for failing to implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. As a result of the case, Nashville public schools were desegregated. Smith’s eldest daughter Joy, then six years old, became one of the first African American children to integrate Nashville’s public schools in 1957. On January 18, 1958, Smith gathered other black Nashville ministers at the Capers Memorial CME Church to form the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, April 21, 1960 Photograph by Jack Gunter, courtesy Nashville Public Library (BN 1960-1169-n10)

Smith would become the organization’s first president. He and the NCLC played an essential role in the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, Tennessee. Smith and NCLC would establish nonviolent workshops at Nashville African American churches, including First Colored Baptist Church Capitol Hill and Clark Methodist Memorial Church. These workshops, led by Rev. James Lawson, trained students in nonviolent protest techniques. The students who attended these workshops came from Nashville’s four historically black colleges and universities, including Tennessee State A&I University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and American Baptist Theological Seminary (Now American Baptist College). They included future civil rights leaders John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Marion Berry, and many others. Smith and NCLC also helped organize the Nashville Sit-Ins, the Freedom Rides, and other civil rights protests in Nashville.

Smith also served as assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1968 to 1984 and he was a member of the Morehouse School of Religion Board of Directors. In 1983, Smith was selected to give the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, one of the highest honors in theological education.

Kelly Miller Smith died of cancer on June 3, 1984, at 63. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville. After his death, Vanderbilt University named The Kelly Miller Smith Institute in his memory. The Kelly Miller Smith Memorial Bridge and Kelly Miller Smith Towers were named after him in Nashville.

Smith was married to Alice Clark Smith; the couple had four children together, including Joy Ardelia, Adena Modesta, Valerie Lin, and Kelly Miller Smith Jr. His son Kelly Miller Smith Jr. is the current pastor at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill in Nashville, Tennessee.

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