Lawson, Young and others join symposium honoring legacy of Kelly Miller Smith

photo of Kelly Miller Smith, Vanderbilt's first African American administrator
Kelly Miller Smith Sr. (Vanderbilt University Archives and Special Collections)

An upcoming virtual symposium featuring noted speakers and artists will reflect on the civil rights accomplishments of Kelly Miller Smith Sr., Vanderbilt University’s first African American administrator, and explore ways to chart a path forward for social justice.

The Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School will join the Kelly Miller Smith Family Foundation in hosting “Activism Then and Now: Equipping for the Road Ahead” on Oct. 28 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The symposium is being held on the date that would have been the 100th birthday of Kelly Miller Smith Sr.

“We know that participants will be energized, stretched and enhanced by learning about and advancing the thought, theology and spirit of Kelly Miller Smith Sr., who helped lead Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and other protests during an integral phase of the civil rights movement,” said Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and distinguished professor of womanist ethics and society.

Smith became pastor of the influential First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, in 1951. He also served as assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1969 until his death in 1984. Smith Hall in Moore College on the Vanderbilt campus pays tribute to his civil rights legacy.

Forrest Harris, director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School

“Kelly was one of the premiere prophetic voices as it relates to justice and freedom for African American people,” said Forrest Harris, director of Vanderbilt’s Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies and professor of the practice of ministry.

The symposium will be divided into three parts:

Activism and Faith, 9-11:30 a.m. CST

The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a prominent minister, civil rights activist and Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumnus, will lead off the symposium, addressing how his faith has informed his lifelong work in the civil rights movement. A panel discussion will follow with Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette Jr., the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon. Joshua DuBois, author and media commentator who led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships during the Obama administration, will serve as moderator. They will consider how faith and spirituality provide grounding and sustenance for the long work of the movement. In addition, visual artist Omari Booker and the Fisk Jubilee Singers will honor the life and legacy of Kelly Miller Smith Sr.

Activism and Policy, noon-1:30 p.m. CST

The second session will explore how marches, sit-ins, protests and negotiations have been used to facilitate creative tension and change policy. How does the will of the people become the law of the land? Andrew Young, activist and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will share his reflections in an interview with Callie Crossley of WGBH’s Morning Edition. A conversation will follow with the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, who is joining the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science and Divinity School faculty next semester, and attorney Danielle C. Gray, who served in senior legal and policy positions in the Obama administration. Poet Gold will close the session with a call to action through spoken word.

Activism and Justice, 2 to 4 p.m. CDT

This segment will consider the scope of justice work. State Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville; Tequila Johnson, co-executive director of the Equity Alliance; defense attorney Derrick Scretchin; and Erica Perry, partnership director for Law for Black Lives; will explore the possibilities and barriers of voting rights and the law. The session will be moderated by Nashville political journalist Harriet Vaughan-Wallace. A second panel with Micky ScottBey Jones, director of healing and resilience initiatives for the Faith Matters Network; Dawn Harrington, executive director of Free Hearts, which provides support, education and advocacy for families affected by incarceration; and Jamel Campbell-Gooch, deputy director of  Gideon’s Army; will focus on social justice movements and the building of a vision. The session will be moderated by the Rev. Teresa Smallwood, associate director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative and postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Diana Poe will close the day in song and the great-grandchildren of Kelly Miller Smith Sr. will deliver the charge.

“I can think of no more important time than now, on what would have been my father’s 100th birthday, to reflect on his activism and accomplishments as we chart a path forward toward a more just world,” said Kelly Miller Smith Jr., current pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. “And I’m excited for the partnership of my family’s foundation with Vanderbilt Divinity School on our inaugural event.”

Registration is required for the Kelly Miller Smith Sr. 100th Birthday Commemorative Symposium, which is free and open to the public.

For more information, email Sha’Tika Brown.