Sonoma’s Mike Smith, still fighting the non-violent fight

Civil rights icon John Lewis may be gone, but the legacy of Selma will keep marching on, says Sonoma activist|

When John Lewis was taking part in the historic voting-rights marches in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Mike Smith was in Natchez, Mississippi.

Smith was one of a household of three “freedom riders” who had headed into the Deep South starting in 1961 to help press against Jim Crow discriminatory laws. “Natchez was one of the worst places in the South and it hadn't been cracked,” said Smith in an interview with the Index-Tribune. “And so in ‘65, they sent some whites down there to see what would break open.”

But when Lewis, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was beaten by Alabama State Troopers in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 – a day which became known as “Bloody Sunday” – Smith traveled from Natchez to Selma the next day to join the march. He was just 24, a year younger than Lewis - who died July 17 at age 80 - but already committed to a life of demonstration, action and non-violence.

Smith – now nearing 80, a resident of Sonoma since 1970, married with four children – is a familiar face at demonstrations in the Valley, all but unmissable because he carries a large American flag over his shoulder. You’re sure to see him every Friday evening, when the Peace and Justice Center convenes a weekly protest in front of City Hall, at the end of Broadway – a protest that has been taking place weekly since 2003, for 17 years.

Smith’s life of activism goes back to his youth in Marin County, and his admission to UC Berkeley. His first arrest was there, as he became involved in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 – when he was arrested for distributing political material from what he was told was an “illegal table.”

Two years later he was again arrested for committing trespass and being a public nuisance during a demonstration in 1966. He went to trial as one of the Oakland Seven (a real-life precursor of the “Secaucus 7” of the 1980 John Sayles movie), but was already serving a six-month sentence for his 1966 action when the “not guilty” verdict for the Oakland Seven came down; they were on trial for conspiring to commit misdemeanors during Stop the Draft Week at the Oakland Induction Center, in October, 1967.

That action was turned into an independent film called “The Activist,” in which Smith played the lead role, a character named Mike Corbett, based on his own activism. It was released in 1970, but does not seem to be available now. (See a clip, without Smith, on YouTube below:)

Altogether, says Smith, he’s been arrested about 40 times – sometimes as a labor leader for the Hospital Workers Union Local 250 and others. (He’s a registered nurse and, at one time, worked in the emergency room at Sonoma Valley Hospital.) Two of those arrests were in Sonoma, he says, the last in 2008.

But like the late John Lewis, Smith believes in non-violence, and it’s a belief he holds to today – and which keeps him from endorsing such current events as the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, which have seen demonstrators clashing with federal officers.

“If you’d asked John Lewis, he would have said no matter what they do, don’t retaliate with violence, that’s what they want’,” asserts Smith. He recounts that even 50 years ago, after some grievous act against the civil rights movement – such as the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, or of Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 – ”Black people said, ‘I’m going to get my shotgun, I’ve had enough of this.’”

But Lewis and most other activists realized that no matter how they felt, that would have been the worst thing they could have done. “He really believed in the idea that not only was nonviolence an absolute necessity in the South, facing what we were facing, but it would be the only way to really reach out to people,” Smith says today about Lewis. “He basically really cared about everybody.”

Despite his own youthful, energetic radicalism, Smith got the message, and believes it today. “Basically my entire life has revolved around the question of violence and non-violence… Our moral authority and our ability to reach people was based on the fact that we were nonviolent. Personally, myself, at that part of my life, I was tactically nonviolent – I used to be a boxer, so if somebody attacked me I defended myself, but I was committed to it.”

His activism didn’t die in the 1960s, or retreat to union organizing. He took an active part in Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott, and organized Valley of the Moon support for the United Farm Workers Grape Boycott, picketing the Sonoma Safeway and handing out leaflets.

He even took his energy overseas, to Northern Ireland to join his cousins there, “who were fighting the same fight black people were” in America – all this before he became an organizer for hospital and nurses unions, leading actions, strikes and often negotiating successfully for workers rights in health care.

And in 2003, when the Bush administration was ginning up support for a war in Iraq – despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the attacks on 9/11 – Smith was back at it, leading the Friday night protests in front of the Sonoma Plaza that continue to this day.

Which gives him a perspective on the current events in Portland and elsewhere that younger protesters may not readily accept. “This is not a game,” he said. “And especially now, since Trump is trying to provoke the situation so that you can really say there's rioting going on.

“I'm a proud American. I've always carried an American flag,” he said. Although it’s caused some people to suggest he do something unspeakable with it, he says, his loyalty to the flag acts as a shield, a commitment to what America is supposed to be, and not what it often is.

“You know, I look at this country for all its warts and stuff, it is still democracy. And, you know, we have to pull together.”

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