Smiley, who rode alongside Martin Luther King on Montgomery’s first desegregated bus, served as an advisor to King and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) during the Montgomery bus boycott. A southern white minister and national field secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Smiley helped solidify King’s understanding of Gandhian nonviolence. After interviewing King during the first few months of the boycott, Smiley wrote a colleague: “I believe that God has called Martin Luther King to lead a great movement here, and in the South. But why does God lay such a burden on one so young, so inexperienced, so good? King can be a Negro Gandhi, or he can be made into an unfortunate demagogue destined to swing from a lynch mob’s tree” (Smiley, 28 February 1956).
Smiley was born in Loraine, Texas, on 19 April 1910. He studied at McMurry College, Southwestern University, University of Arizona, and University of Redlands. Smiley worked for 14 years as a Methodist preacher in Arizona and California before joining the Congress of Racial Equality and FOR in 1942. In 1945 he served time in prison as a conscientious objector.
As national field secretary for FOR, Smiley arrived in Montgomery on 27 February 1956, and was introduced to King by Bayard Rustin. He was impressed with King’s leadership, but criticized King’s willingness to accept a bodyguard. He gave King some books on nonviolence, including The Power of Nonviolence, by Richard Gregg. In a letter to friends, Smiley wrote, “If [King] can really be won to a faith in non-violence there is no end to what he can do. Soon he will be able to direct the movement by the sheer force of being the symbol of resistance” (Smiley, 29 February 1956).
Smiley emphasized to King the need to create dialogue between white and black ministers in the South. In an April 1956 letter to King, Smiley described a prayer meeting of Alabama white ministers who supported a liberal approach to racial issues as something that could “very easily be the most significant thing I have done, in that it stands a good chance of being the beginning of a rebuilt ‘middle ground’ in Alabama” (Papers 3:214). Smiley also hoped to establish joint prayer meetings with Montgomery’s white and black ministers.
After the court found segregation on buses unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle on 17 December 1956, the MIA released a set of guidelines for riding on newly integrated buses. Smiley helped develop these guidelines with King and other MIA leaders. In a 1986 draft of his autobiography, Smiley recalled that he approached King the night before they rode an integrated Montgomery bus for the first time and asked “to collect [his] salary” by being “the first white man to ride by you tomorrow when we ride the bus for the first time” (Smiley, 1986). Smiley rode alongside King, Ralph Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, and Fred Gray on the first integrated bus in Montgomery on 21 December 1956.
From 1956 to the early 1960s, Smiley organized a number of nonviolence training workshops and conferences with others, including King, Rustin, James Lawson, Abernathy, and A. J. Muste. Smiley believed nonviolent direct action was essential in the South, calling it “the most promising and adequate tool available” to the movement (Smiley, 11 July 1958). Smiley was also a strong supporter of the student sit-in movement in 1960, urging students to attend the Shaw University conference in April that became the birthplace of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The extent to which FOR and Smiley claimed credit for the adoption of nonviolence in the Montgomery bus boycott became an issue of contention in the late 1950s. According to Smiley, Abernathy reportedly felt that: “We could never have achieved the success we did in Montgomery had it not been for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Glenn Smiley” (Smiley, 1986). Smiley stated his own position in a 1957 letter: “It seems clear to me that the FOR has developed in the south a self-conscious, nonviolent movement with King at the head” (Papers 5:218n). King acknowledged Smiley’s role, noting “his contribution in our overall struggle has been of inestimable value” (Papers 4:111). However, he challenged the notion that FOR was responsible for the nonviolent campaign. He wrote to a colleague: “I fear that this impression has gotten out in many quarters because members of the staff of the FOR have spread the idea” (Papers 5:218).
In the 1960s, Smiley founded Justice-Action-Peace Latin America, a Methodist-inspired group that organized seminars on nonviolence in Latin American countries from 1967 through the early 1970s. Smiley continued to work with FOR in the 1980s, receiving FOR’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Award in 1991.
King to Alfred Hassler, 18 January 1957, in Papers 4:111.
King to Hilda Proctor, 1 June 1959, in Papers 5:218.
Smiley, Draft of autobiography, 1986, GESP.
Smiley to King, 13 April 1956, in Papers 3:214.
Smiley to Muriel Lester, 28 February 1956, FORR-PSC-P.
Smiley to William Stuart Nelson, 11 July 1958, GESP.
Smiley to John M. Swomley and Alfred Hassler, 29 February 1956, FORR-PSC-P.