VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 9/2/16)–Charles Z. Smith, former president of American Baptist Churches USA, who rose from simple beginnings in the deep south to become a pioneering African American jurist in his home state of Washington, died Sunday in Seattle. He was 89. A lifelong Baptist, he served as president of the denomination during 1976-77 and was known for his concern for religious freedom globally. Smith served on the American Baptist General Board (now known as the Board of General Ministries) as well as the Board of National Ministries (now the American Baptist Home Mission Societies). He was an active member of First Baptist Church in Seattle.
“I see the practice of law as very much like the ministry in its various forms,” Smith told The American Baptist magazine during a 1987 interview. “There is always an opportunity to help someone.” When asked to describe what makes her husband run, his spouse, Eleanor, would say, “He loves his neighbor as himself.” In his early career Smith served as a commentator for KOMO Television and radio in Seattle. “An ABC report provided excellent background material for my comments on the morality of dealing with South Africa,” he told ABC Communications Director Phil Jenks during a 1975 interview.
Smith once told the University of Washington Alumni Magazine that he originally wanted to be a psychiatrist. Forced to observe a surgical procedure he quickly discovered he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. “So I changed fields.”
“He was one of the true giants of Washington Law,” Kellye Y. Testy, Dean of the University of Washington Law School told the Seattle Times. “There is not an area where he did not have an influence.” Smith worked more than 50 years as an attorney and served as an associate dean of the law school, where he graduated and later taught. When he graduated from the Law School in 1955, he was one of four African Americans in the law school and the only African American in his class to graduate.
In an oral history Smith provided to the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, Smith said he was born in Lakeland, Fla., and grew up in the segregated South, the son of a Cuban immigrant father and an African-American mother who was the daughter of slaves.
He served as a military court reporter during World War II, graduated from Temple University in 1952, and while living in Philadelphia met and befriended Dr. Martin Luther King. He subsequently moved to Washington State in 1965 to be closer to his mother.
In the oral history, Smith tells that he wasn’t able to land a job with a law firm after graduating from law school. So he became the first African-American law clerk at the State Supreme Court. While later working in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, Smith attracted the attention of Robert Kennedy, who was soon to become U.S. attorney general. Kennedy had taken note of Smith’s first legal triumph in a case of national concern — the conviction of Teamsters’ leader Dave Beck for misuse of union funds.
Kennedy hired Smith as a special assistant U.S. attorney in 1961 to help investigate corruption in the Teamsters’ pension fund. The investigation led to the indictment of Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa.
In 1965 Smith was appointed the first African-American municipal-court judge in Seattle. In 1966, he broke another color barrier when Gov. Dan Evans appointed him to the King County Superior Court bench. In 1973 he stepped down to become a professor and associate dean at the Law School. In 1988, Gov. Booth Gardner chose him from among six candidates to become the state’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, calling him “a bright and collegial judge with a strong social conscience.”
In 1999 President Bill Clinton appointed Smith to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. During that period, Smith was especially concerned for religious persecution taking place in the countries of China, Egypt, India and Pakistan. He served on the commission three years until he retired. Smith was also a member of the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry, helping to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords.
Smith’s biography, entitled Charles Z. Smith, Trailblazer, on the Washington secretary of state’s website, references him as a “stealthy subversive.” According to the Times report, as a civil rights activist he was of a generation that saw education and integrity – not confrontation – as the key to equality. While an associate dean his tireless efforts for social justice and human rights included a long fight to win reparations for Japanese Americans who were relocated and interred in camps during World War II.
“One of the accomplishments of his tenure as ABCUSA president was to get ABCUSA to check the affirmative action reports of the services (particularly the hotels) that they used,” says Marcia J. Patton, Region Executive Minister for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches. “This was somewhat problematic with the convention hotel at the 1977 San Diego convention. The manager of the hotel came into the General Board deliberations demanding to know who had requested the report. Charles Smith acknowledged that he had requested it, and if the hotel would not comply with the request, something businesses were required to do, he would tell the 3,000 expected attendees at the convention scheduled to start the next day. The hotel produced the report. Charles Smith did not stay at the hotel, just as he did not stay at the hotel in Philadelphia ABCUSA regularly used for meetings. That hotel, like too many others, had no people of color in management, indeed none above their maid and bellhop staff. This was
just a small example of his quest for justice and his social activism.”
Justice Smith’s family, in a statement, said Smith “lived an exemplary life founded on the three pillars of truth, justice and freedom,” adding that Smith was a “devoted husband, father and grandfather.”
“Justice Smith was not only a stellar jurist, but also an outstanding leader in American Baptist life regionally and locally,” said former ABCUSA General Secretary Roy Medley. “The compassion and moral fabric of his faith shaped his jurisprudence, and the quest for justice and fairness through his professional life influenced his leadership in the church. When I recall Justice Smith, Luke 4: 18-19 springs to mind. As a devoted disciple of Jesus, nothing marked his life as much as the quest to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.”
Smith is survived by his wife of 61 years, Eleanor, M. Smith, four children, six grandchildren and four siblings.
A memorial service will be held on Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 2:00 p.m. PDT at First Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash.