Written in 2010 from notes and an extensive interview with John. He is my neighbor. What I remember and cherish most is when we would stop at the mailbox to talk while he was dropping off a few copies of the Inquirer newspaper. Such a kind and dedicated man and a true and faithful friend.
The 1930s became a time of insurgent change and economic revolution with the Great Depression in 1929. For the next several years Wall Street struggled to rebound from near devastation; and the South, in general, endured compassionate, bold editorials by a unique newspaperman (Ralph McGill from The Atlanta Constitution) who dreamed of an ultimate Renaissance of a “New South.” However, in 1935, another “change agent” from South Georgia came on the scene, unbeknownst that his course of travel would assist in the rise of the “New South” to enhance the African-American Diaspora.
John B. Smith, Sr., from modest beginnings in LaGrange, GA, and as the oldest of three brothers and a sister, learned to become a leader early in life – prior to owning The Atlanta Inquirer, one of Atlanta’s premiere African-American weeklies. Catapulted by the courage of his father, John W. Smith, John B. Smith Sr., an honor student at LaGrange’s East Depot High School, excelled at Morehouse College as a distinguished “Morehouse Man.” Considered to be one of “Buck Bennie’s Boys,” alluding to the magnanimously profound tenure of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays as president of Morehouse College, Smith, Sr.’s acumen and capabilities engrained from the early years would help ease the sometimes challenging years as an educator and acting principal within the Atlanta Public Schools (at Price and Fulton High Schools), as well as becoming owner of The Atlanta Inquirer. This was the beginning of a life of accomplishment and service for this particular history maker. “A warm and loving west Georgia city, with enthusiastic support to be successful, was the typical example of the village I was raised in as a child,” Smith, Sr. fondly remembered. “My father was a true role model (among others) for me even as he, with a limited education, provided for the family, working to make certain his children received an education.” Graduating in 1958 from Morehouse, within the upper level of his class, Smith, Sr. took the world by storm, landing at Lockheed-Martin in Marietta, GA, all the while supporting his siblings and mother. “I didn’t want, nor could I afford, to fail,” the publisher relayed. “I received a good, sound education with good teachers and scholars, and I’ve come to realize that I was placed at a time and period when failure was not an option.” Furthermore, Smith, Sr. also credits his very first job as a steppingstone toward becoming a successful proprietor. Selling copies The Chicago Defender at age eight, and listening to a mentor from Morehouse, Professor Clinton E. “Pop” Warner, inspired the interest of journalism. He also sold copies of The Pittsburgh Courier and Ebony and Jet magazines. “The importance from my godfather of achieving, and saving, a dollar was appreciated,” the humble 75 year old said.
In the U.S. Army for two years (1958-60) was an eye-opening life experience as well, but it also brought about a tough and stern demeanor for business success. “In the military, I encountered more racism than living in Georgia,” he stated, remembering the days in the Battalion specializing in calculations to fire atomic rounds, along with other duties, at Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. “The discrimination was so bad, I took measures to circumvent the unfairness,” recounting, too, that at Fort Lewis, Washington, a “race riot” that erupted between black and white soldiers after University of Olympia ladies were recruited for participation instigated hostility when the white ladies danced with black soldiers. “I saw much more racism in the military than I ever witnessed living in the South.”
Mr. Smith, Sr.’s most pivotal role in American society, nevertheless, may arguably be his involvement with, and leadership of, The Atlanta Inquirer. With his Bachelor’s of Science and M.A. degrees in mathematics, along with an MBA degree Smith, Sr. began working with the award-winning newspaper in 1961 as a part-time advertising salesman. “It was divine intervention to be in publishing . . . upon working with some of Atlanta’s top businessmen of the day,” he stated. “While in advertising, my sales exceeded (other salesmen’s) combined, which led to being promoted to advertising manager;” and three years later, to executive vice president. Additionally, while taking charge of operations in the mid-1970s, the father of three and grandfather of five eventually purchased the newspaper in the spring of 1985 — proud of the reference by its readers as “the best newspaper in the city, state and region, and one of the top newspapers in the nation.”
Smith, Sr, and the Atlanta Inquirer, has given much as a member publication of the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association (NNPA), “the Black Press of America,” of which he is the immediate past chairman of the board (2005-09) and serves as first vice chairman (2009-present). Nonetheless, with its historicity of being created by Atlanta University student activists, in 1960, seeking to ignite justice and equality for all during the volatile civil rights movement years — “To Seek Out the Truth and Report It Without Fear or Favor” — Smith, Sr.’s desire for perfection, coupled with compassion, inspired the quest “to possess a voice for the downtrodden and for the least of these,” he opined, as well as “to plead our own cause” to assist in accomplishing equality for African-Americans, in particular. Several examples of The Inquirer’s service include informing the community of Atlanta’s “Berlin Wall” (1961); the election of an African-American, Maynard Jackson, as the first mayor of a major Southern city (1973), and the disturbing and still-riveting homicides that were Atlanta’s Child Murder cases which took the lives of nearly 30 African-American pre-teen and teen males (1979-82) and the subsequent jury trial of convicted murderer Wayne B. Williams, along with historic election coverage of Atlanta’s first female mayor, Shirley C. Franklin, in 2000.
Assisting young people toward advantageous opportunities is pleasurable for the elder at Union Baptist and Tri-Cities Communities/New Life Churches. “It’s nice to witness the fruits of your labor in action, working as a ‘chaplain for the common good’. It’s a beneficial part of realizing one’s life has not been in vain,” Smith, Sr. exclaimed. Another example of his life well-lived is bringing his offsprings into the fold at The Inquirer. “In building the newspaper, I realized that African-Americans do not regularly pass down individual heritage and legacy appropriately. Therefore, I made the effort to not only include my son, John Jr., into the business, but all of my children.” Accentuating his many business and humanitarian accolades throughout the years, including “Who’s Who in Black Atlanta” (2004); one of 25 “City Shapers” of Atlanta (Atlanta Magazine, 1998); recipient of Georgia’s Department of Labor’s Black History Achiever’s Award in Journalism; one of the Atlanta Business League’s “Men of Influence” (2007); serving as a charter member of Tri-Cities Communities/New Life Church; a 32 degree Prince Hall Mason; and an active member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Smith, Sr. rests on wanting to be acknowledged as one who lived and tried to help his people. “I only want it to be said that I helped to develop and advance our ‘beloved community,’ but also that (I) left an instrument to the world that stood up valiantly to work to protect mankind from injustice.”
Personally, I have known John B. Smith, Sr. as a friend and neighbor. I see him move about the city, this state and the nation as a business owner, entrepreneur and employer. I know him to be a husband, father, and family-man. I have witnessed him as a community leader, volunteer, and mentor. But I am no different from many other folks throughout these United States of America when I call him my friend and a great Atlanta history maker.