Nelson Smith Jr

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Nelson H. Smith

Nelson H. Smith Jr (born 1930 in Brewton, Monroe County; died September 10, 2006 in Birmingham) was the pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham from 1953 until his death and a leader in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and later in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Born the son of a preacher Nelson Smith, Sr and his wife Lillie in Brewton, Smith grew up in Monroeville and attended Bethlehem Industry Academy High School and the Monroe County Baptist Academy. Like his later Birmingham colleagues Fred Shuttlesworth and T. L. Lane, he studied theology at Selma University. His sister, Fannie Smith Motley, was the first African American to graduate from Spring Hill College in 1956.

Throughout his career Smith was known as "Fireball" for his dynamic and often poetic oratory, rehearsed at length to perfect cadence and gestures. After graduating he preached in revivals across the South, making news for his ringing oratory delivered at a revival for Wheat Street Baptist Church in 1950s Atlanta. His first pastorate was at the Christian Union Baptist Church in Mobile (1948-49). He spent the next year at Union Baptist Church in Clanton, then two years at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beatrice, and a short term at Shiloh Baptist Church in Montevallo before finding a home at New Pilgrim in 1953. During most of his time there the congregation exceeded 1,200 members. Smith advocated strong leadership from the pulpit, characterizing the ideal congregation as a theocracy rather than a democracy.

Long frustrated by the indignities of Birmingham's complete racial segregation, Smith preached for the advancement of African Americans. He was a charter member in the ACMHR when it formed in 1956. He assisted Fred Shuttlesworth as the organization's secretary and hosted numerous meetings at his church, which attracted a young, dynamic congregation. He approached Miles College student body president Frank Dukes and cultivated support for the ACMHR's non-violent aims on campus. Smith co-signed most of the group's external communications and led marches during the tumultuous Birmingham Campaign in the Spring of 1963. In 1964 Smith headed Birmingham's first SCLC chapter, representing a break between that organization and the ACMHR.

In the early 1970s Smith was involved in the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention out of the National Baptist Convention. he served as second vice president in 1970 and advanced to first vice president in 1972 and president in 1974. From 1975 to 1986 he served on the general council for the Baptist World Alliance, for whom he attended conferences around the world.

Throughout his ministry, Smith preached the importance of higher education and personal financial management. He founded the New Pilgrim Credit Union in 1965 and led his church in the development of a bookstore and the New Pilgrim Towers apartments.

Smith died at home in 2006 after a long illness. He was survived by his wife, Leslie, and four children. The Kneeling ministers statue in Kelly Ingram Park depicts him alongside A. D. King and John Porter, kneeling in prayer at the culmination of the Palm Sunday March on April 7, 1963.

Civil Rights Movement (19561965)
Documents Segregation laws · ACMHR Declaration of Principles · Nonviolence pledge · Birmingham Manifesto · A Call For Unity · Appeal for Law and Order · Letter from Birmingham Jail · Birmingham Truce · Civil Rights Act of 1964
Events Freedom Rides · Who Speaks for Birmingham? · Selective Buying Campaign · Birmingham Campaign · Good Friday march · Children's Crusade · Police dogs and firehoses · List of racially-motivated bombings · 1963 church bombing · May 1963 riot
Organizations Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights · Birmingham City Commission · Ku Klux Klan · Miles College · NAACP · Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Activists Fred Shuttlesworth · Martin Luther King Jr · A. D. King · James Bevel · Frank Dukes · Edward Gardner · Lola Hendricks · Colonel Stone Johnson · Autherine Lucy · Vivian Malone · Joseph Lowery · James Orange · Nelson Smith Jr · John Porter · Abraham Woods Jr
Other figures Albert Boutwell · Robert Chambliss · Bull Connor · A. G. Gaston · Art Hanes · Lucius Pitts · Sidney Smyer · J. B. Stoner · "8 white clergymen" · Virgil Ware · "4 little girls"
Places Kelly Ingram Park · A. G. Gaston Motel · Movement churches
Legacy Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail · Birmingham Civil Rights Institute · Birmingham Pledge


  • Smith, Nelson H. ( ) Why is There a Crack in the Liberty Bell: Mind Fermentation from the Pulpit
  • Smith, Nelson H. ( ) Pastor to People, Special Messages of Meaning and Mystery


  • Fallin, Wilson (1997) The African American church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1815-1963: a Shelter in the Storm. Studies in African American History and Culture. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0815328834
  • Manis, Andrew (1999) A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817309683
  • McWhorter, Diane (2001) Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743226488
  • "Ala. Civil Rights Leader, Pastor Nelson Smith died at Age 76." (September 11, 2006) Associated Press.
  • Williams, Avis E. (June 22, 2007) "'How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace': The life and ministry of Nelson Smith, Jr. ". Baptist History and Heritage

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