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Guests admire a memorial to Smith, who died last month at 69 and who had worked for racial equality since the 1960s.

Smith celebrated as civil rights hero

Admirers recall long time local leader’s courage

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The United Male Chorus of Fort Wayne sings at the funeral of George Smith at Greater Progressive Baptist Church.

– Civil rights leader George A. Smith Jr. got a fitting send-off Saturday at Greater Progressive Baptist Church.

Members of the United Male Chorus, which he co-founded 27 years ago, swayed in time to the music and lifted their voices, and arms, in song.

The church’s choir, which he also led for more than two decades, formed an old-fashioned Gospel train, a Southern Baptist tradition Smith loved, and danced its way up the aisle.

Pastors from several of the city’s predominantly black Baptist churches joined on the platform behind his flower-draped casket, and a string of friends and relatives lined up to give tributes to a man one called “a genuine hero.”

A leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s and in Fort Wayne for more than four decades, Smith died April 29 at 69 – never having lost his commitment to racial equality, his love for his family and faith, or a fearless, gentle charisma that drew people to him, speakers said.

“George was arrested and jailed many times. He called the Meridian (Miss.) jail his second home,” said Joe Morse, who met Smith as a young, white idealistic student from Minnesota working with the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s.

Smith worked for CORE from 1964-67 and later served as a project director.

Morse said Smith endured having a cross burned on his front lawn and being fired from his hospital job in Mississippi for organizing picketing outside a grocery store.

At least once, he said, Smith’s wife, Louise, got a midnight call from people purporting to be from the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan saying they’d kidnapped him and he wouldn’t be coming home.

But Smith, who moved to Fort Wayne in 1967, was not deterred.

“He always led by kindness and gentleness,” Morse said. “Mississippi has more black elected officials now than any state in the nation because of the work George did, and our president is an African-American.”

Added Larry Lee in a tribute: “It’s just an incredible life story. He played no small role in changing the history of the South and of this country.

“Activist is too mild a word. … The man is a hero.”

Bennie Jones of Flint, Mich., recalled that people called Smith “Deacon” when Jones met him while working at General Motors in Defiance, Ohio

Smith retired from GM in 2002 after 35 years and became active in a retirees’ group.

“He was the kind of person – he got things going, and he was right at the head,” Jones said. “I used to wonder. … but now I see what they were working for. They were working for the kids, and my grandkids.

“I’d say, ‘What are you doing? They don’t pay you no money, you’re staying in jail, dogs are nipping at your ankles, and you’re being hit alongside the head.’

But you know what they say – ‘God always sends someone for the job to be done.’ But it wasn’t me. It was him.”

In recent years, Smith organized Martin Luther King Day events in Fort Wayne. He also took area young people on trips to Mississippi and Alabama so they could see places of historic import, said Kenn Rollins, 51, of Fort Wayne.

Rollins said Smith’s passing leaves a void because he was personally connected to those events and knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King as a person, not just as figure in history.

“It does leave it to the next generation, but hopefully we will handle it as well as the previous generation – not just the struggle but telling the story, because it grounds you with a sense of purpose,” Rollins said.

But he says he can’t feel sad, and he was glad the funeral had a celebratory tone.

“Because I know he was saved,” he said. “I’ll be seeing him again. This isn’t a good-bye. This is simply an ‘I’ll be seein’ you.’ ”