Kelly Miller Smith was the influential pastor of Nashville’s First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, from 1951 until his death in 1984. He was also assistant dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1969 to 1984. As president of the Nashville NAACP from 1956 to 1959, founder and president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC) from 1958 to 1963, and a founding board member of the Nashville Urban League, he was one of the city’s most influential black leaders.
Born October 28, 1920, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, Smith attended Tennessee State University from 1938 to 1940 and graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1942. In 1945 he received a bachelor of divinity degree from the Howard University School of Religion. Prior to coming to Nashville in 1951, he was pastor of Mt. Heroden Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, from 1946 to 1951. From 1946 to 1948 he was also head of the Department of Religion at Natchez College in Natchez, Mississippi.
Smith was president of the Nashville NAACP when the U.S. Supreme Court made its 1954 ruling against school segregation. To spur implementation in Nashville, Smith joined twelve other black parents in filing suit in U.S. District Court against the Nashville Board of Education. For his leadership, Time magazine gave Smith the major credit for the city’s transition away from Jim Crow. Ebony magazine also named him “One of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Preachers” in 1954.
With the NCLC, he helped organize and support Nashville students in the sit-ins leading to the integration of the city’s downtown lunch counters in 1960. The NCLC was the local affiliate of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), on which Smith served from 1955 to 1969 on the executive board. He was also a Merrill Fellow at Harvard University in 1967.
He delivered the 1983 Lyman Beecher Lecture Series at Yale University, published shortly before his death by Mercer University Press in the book Social Crisis Preaching. He was also author of: Microphone Messages (1947) and A Doorway to Bible Appreciation (1948). He was a contributor to The Struggle for Meaning (1977); The Pulpit Speaks on Race (1964); To Be a Person of Integrity (1975); and Best Black Sermons (1972). Smith was survived by his wife; his son, Kelly Miller Smith Jr.; and four daughters.