As a young man living in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. J.C. Smith put a lot of miles on his brand new car.
He volunteered as a driver during the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger.
In protest, 40,000 African-American commuters stopped riding Montgomery’s buses, a boycott lasting 381 days. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and picked as their leader a charismatic young minister named Martin Luther King Jr.
Passengers walked or car-pooled with drivers like the Rev. Smith, who donated their time, tires and gasoline to get people to school and work. “There was thousands, thousands of people who did that. . . . And that’s really, really what made the movement successful,” he said in a 2015 interview with WGN-TV.
Alabama authorities tried different ways to break the protest. They alleged carpool drivers were flouting the law. At one point, they accused the Rev. Smith of illegally spinning his wheels on wet pavement.
He was not intimidated. “I knew I hadn’t done anything,” he said. “I knew if we went before the jury, they didn’t have [a] case.”
One night, while meeting at a church, he and other participants learned Ku Klux Klan members had gathered outside. “We were shut up in church all night because Dr. King said don’t leave, no one leave, because the Klan had surrounded the church,” the Rev. Smith told WGN. “And it was dangerous.”
King never wavered. “You would just be carried away to listen to him speak,” the Rev. Smith said.
The boycott ended 13 months later, after a court ruled segregated buses were unconstitutional.
The Rev. Smith was among the first African-Americans who returned to the buses and took their seats — at the front.
“It felt great. It felt great,” he told WGN. “I didn’t know it felt so good, sitting up there.”
He died Oct. 12 at his Harvey home at 86, said his son, the Rev. Jeffery Smith.
Young J.C. Smith grew up near Ramer, Alabama, one of 10 children of sharecroppers Eliza and J.C. Smith. The Smiths plowed with a mule and lived off crops they planted and chickens and pigs they raised. When they were lucky enough to get off a good shot, they supplemented their diet with squirrel and possum. At 14, after the death of his father, J.C. Smith dropped out of school to help run the farm.
At 18, he moved to Montgomery and landed a job with a glass company. He enlisted in the Army for two years and served in Okinawa during the Korean War, relatives said.
From Okinawa, he wrote a letter to Willie Mae Myricks of Montgomery, telling her he’d like to come courting. They were married on her family’s porch in 1956. The Smiths operated a Montgomery clothing store, and he sold real estate and life insurance.
He followed relatives north to Chicago, where he worked as a carpenter and studied at the Chicago Baptist Institute. He became a minister in 1964. Five years later, he established Bethlehem Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Harvey. He also helped develop a Harvey housing development, Bethlehem Village.
The Rev. Smith told his children: “Study hard, pray much.” He lived to see them and his grandchildren earn degrees from schools including Carnegie Mellon, Juilliard, Sarah Lawrence, Morehouse, Mount Holyoke, Princeton, Spelman, the University of Michigan and Washington University.
Another son, Jonathan Smith, recalled a lesson his father taught him one hot summer day. “When Jeff and I were teenagers, we drove to St. Louis one Independence Day” to see an uncle, Johnny Smith. “We assume we’re going to celebrate the holiday, have barbecue. But when we get to Johnny’s house, there are shingles in the front yard and ladders. When we got out of the car, [the Rev. Smith] had tools and put on his toolbelt and climbed the ladder, and told us to start bringing up shingles,” Jonathan Smith said. Even though the teens had to work in the St. Louis heat, he said he realized something later. “It was about self-sacrifice, about work ethic, about family values.”
In addition to his wife and sons, the Rev. Smith is survived by a daughter, Jennifer Strayhorn; two other sons, Jerrold and Jacques; a brother, Thomas; 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A viewing is scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Bethlehem Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 20 E. 147th St., Harvey. A final viewing is planned from 9 a.m. Thursday until the start of his funeral at 11 a.m.
The Rev. Smith felt “it was a disgrace” when people didn’t exercise their right to vote, said the Rev. Jeffery Smith. “Anybody who wants to carry forward his legacy, vote,” he said. “Whoever you would want to vote for, vote. People did lose their lives and shed a lot of blood for people to be able to vote.”