Look who’s being honored…
Former North Brentwood pastor to be honored for civil rights work
Worked with King, others on desegregation, social issues
By Jamie Anfenson-Comeau
The Rev. Perry Smith III spent much of his life fighting for civil rights, from the pulpit of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood to the streets.
Smith, 81, of Mitchellville said his grandfather was his inspiration for joining the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
“He was very actively involved, believing that people should take an active interest in preserving their rights,” Smith said.
Smith enrolled in Howard University at 15, intending to go into pre-medicine and return to Mississippi, but he said he felt the calling of the Holy Spirit and decided to enter the ministry.
At the invitation of his grandfather, Smith traveled to Montgomery, Ala., in 1956 to take part in bus boycotts, which was when he first met Martin Luther King Jr.
“We became friends after that,” Smith said. “He was a human being, not without his faults, but he was a very warm, welcoming human being.”
Smith served as president of the Prince George’s County NAACP from 1961 to 1964, and said he assisted King when he was in the Washington, D.C., area, and often drove him to the airport. He said King was always late for his flights, because he’d stop and talk to people along the way.
“He said, ‘Smith, if I don’t catch this plane, I’ll catch the next one. You’ve got to take time for people.’ That was a motto I tried to carry out in my life,” Smith said.
Dorothy Bailey of Temple Hills, founder of the Harlem Remembrance Foundation, which chronicles black history in the county, said Smith played a big role in the civil rights movement in Prince George’s County.
“He was very involved in the civil rights movement in the county and he worked closely with Dr. King during the 1960s,” said Bailey, who took part in efforts to desegregate eating establishments.
The Prince George’s County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is presenting Smith its Lifetime Achievement Award on Jan. 17.
“He was constantly working to keep Dr. King’s dream alive and continuing Dr. King’s efforts towards peaceful nonviolence,” said McArthur Bishop, president of the county SCLC.
Smith became pastor of the North Brentwood church in 1958, a role he held until his retirement in 2010. He continued his involvement in civil rights activities, both in and out of the county.
“Prince George’s County was extremely racist at the time, extremely racist,” Smith said. “We had to meet underground fairly often in different parts of the county.”
In 1961, Smith said he took part in the Freedom Rides, in which groups of various races rode interstate buses together in defiance of segregation laws in the South. Smith was arrested in Tallahassee, Fla., for his involvement.
It wasn’t the first or last time Smith was arrested. He said he was arrested 13 times, many of which were in Prince George’s County.
Smith said that despite his many arrests, he’s never had a criminal record.
“I was never put behind bars. I was always released without anybody saying a word about it,” Smith said.
Bishop said Smith put his own personal safety on the line in working toward racial justice.
“Following the assassination of Dr. King, he played a significant role in maintaining peace in Prince George’s County,” Bishop said.
Smith said he is pleased to see a reawakening of the civil rights movement over the past few years.
“I think it’s alive again, and that’s healthy,” Smith said. “A phoenix can arise out of ashes, and that is what’s happening.”
Smith said the movement’s focus has changed, from access to equity, but he said he is greatly moved to see younger people taking up the standard.
“These young people are in their teens, and they’re black and white, yellow and brown, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Hindu. That’s healthy, it’s good to see that happening. When I see the protest signs blacks and whites are holding together, that to me is what America is all about,” Smith said.
Jamie Afenson-Comeau, firstname.lastname@example.org