As a social gospel minister, Kelly Miller Smith believed in using his pastorate to promote activism. Smith participated in the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, and co-founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC) a year later. In a 1961 telegram Smith described Martin Luther King as the “embodiment of the message you bear” (Smith, 19 December 1961).
Smith and his six siblings were raised in a Christian household in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. In 1938 Smith entered Tennessee State University as a music major. Two years later he decided to focus on religious studies and received his BA in religion and music from Morehouse College (1942) and his Master of Divinity from Howard University Divinity School (1945).
Smith first served as pastor of Mount Heroden Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, before being called to First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1951. Upon his arrival in Nashville Smith became extremely active in the civil rights struggle. In 1955 he and 12 other parents filed a lawsuit against the Nashville Board of Education for failing to implement the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. With this case, his eldest daughter Joy, then six years old, became one of the first African American children to integrate Nashville’s public schools in December 1957.
As president of the Nashville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1956 to 1959, Smith coordinated a voter registration drive that resulted in the addition of hundreds of new African American voters to the rolls. Smith also served on SCLC’s executive board from 1957 to 1969. His affiliate organization, NCLC, held workshops directed by James Lawson to train students in the use of nonviolent protest techniques. In a June 1960 letter congratulating the students for their nonviolent protest of lunch counter segregation, King wrote that “Nashville provided the best organized and best disciplined group in the whole southern student movement,” and acknowledged Smith’s “magnificent leadership” (Papers 5:466).
Smith was assistant dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School from 1968 to 1984, and a member of the Morehouse School of Religion’s board of directors from 1975 until his death. In 1983 Smith was selected to give the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, one of the highest honors in theological education.
Smith remained pastor of First Baptist Church until his death in 1984. Four years before his death, the congregation honored his activism with the establishment of Kelly Miller Smith Towers, Nashville’s first minority-owned housing project for the elderly and disabled.