By Hamil R. Harris, Special to the AFRO
It was the evening of April 4, 1968. The Rev. Perry Smith III was driving near 18th and Monroe Streets Northeast when it came on the radio that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
“I pulled my car over and I must have sat there for about 50 minutes,” said Smith, who was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Brentwood and a soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. “I had just returned from Memphis where I participated in the sanitation workers strike and I came back because it was Easter week.”
Rev. Perry Smith III, former pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recalled the devastation and call to action he felt post the death of the Civil Rights hero. (Courtesy Photo)
On April 3, 1968, Smith was in Mason Temple in Memphis when King preached to people to join the plight of the Memphis sanitation workers.”Smith had heard King preach before but he said this time it was different. “When he finished preaching he was so tired until they had to help him to his seat,” Smith said “It was like he was looking beyond the audience. He was looking at things spiritually and suggested that his life may not be long because he was constantly under threat.”
Smith was seated in Mason Temple when King went from talking about the plight of the sanitation workers to offering an almost fatalistic vision of his own future.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” King said in his final sermon.
For Smith, King’s death was heartbreaking.
“I heard on my car radio that King had been assassinated and I was devastated,” Smith said. “I was shocked, but not surprised. He was always under attack. My wife and I went to Atlanta for the funeral because a family member had died. “
As a leader in the Progressive National Convention, King’s denomination, the two men worked together to integrate the South.“He was coming to North Brentwood I still have the letter,” said Smith a native of Mound Bayou, Mississippi who moved to D.C. in the 1950s. He had planned to attend medical school at Howard University but Smith took the call to pastor in North Brentwood and remained there for for 52 years. Smith was part of a group of ministers, which included King, who broke away from the National Baptist Convention because Rev. J. H. Jackson, the group’s President, opposed King and leaving his post.
As a result King, Smith and other ministers were ousted so they formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which is headquartered in D.C.
“We gave Dr. King a home,” Smith said. “The Progressive National Baptist Convention is still for social justice and after Dr. King died I was determined to keep going and not give up.”
On the night King was assassinated, Smith worked diligently patrolling the streets because of the riots.
“I rode along Southern Avenue because the Prince George’s County Police Officers were armed and ready for trouble.”
At 83, Smith talks with pride about his days fighting with King. He said going forward “I support the Black Lives movement, but those of us in the Civil Rights movement need to give them more support.”