The Atlanta Student Movement of the turbulent 1960s had a story to tell. And J.B. Smith was determined to be a part of that.
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said Smith “never wavered in getting the real news out to the community through his newspaper.”
“Along the way, he was a trailblazer for other African-American journalists who would follow in his footsteps,” Eaves said.
John B. “J.B.” Smith Sr., retired educator and longtime editor and publisher of the historically black Atlanta Inquirer, died at home April 27. He was 81.
A service was held Saturday at Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel.
A native of LaGrange, Smith received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse in 1958 and then did a brief stint in the U.S. Army.
In 1960, he began a 30-plus year career with Atlanta Public Schools, first as a mathematics teacher and later as an administrator.
He was settling into teaching when Herman J. Russell, Jesse Hill Jr. and others decided to launch The Atlanta Inquirer to fill a void in mainstream media coverage of the growing Atlanta Student Movement, the forerunner to the civil rights movement.
“The Atlanta Inquirer began to tell the city and the world about the dangerous, courageous and history-making demonstrations” by students at Morehouse and Atlanta’s other predominately black colleges, Smith’s daughter, Lori, said.
Newly married, J.B. Smith signed on as the paper’s part-time ad salesman, juggling that with his full-time teaching job.
He rapidly advanced to the advertising manager, then vice president. His family later purchased the paper. At the time of his death, Smith was the publisher and chief executive officer.
Along the way, he obtained a master’s degrees in business education and mathematics from Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University. He also received his honorary doctorate from Atlanta’s Carver Bible College in 2009.
Retiring from education in the early 1990s, Smith devoted even more time to what family said was “his baby,” the Inquirer.
Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., professor of philosophy and religion at Morehouse College and dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, said Smith “was a very outgoing, easily met, very community-oriented individual with many connections throughout the city.”
“He was an activist,” Carter said. “You saw him everywhere.”
Smith belonged to several community organizations and was a longtime member and one-time chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of more than 200 African-American newspapers, also known as The Black Press of America.
In an article he wrote in 2010 to mark the Inquirer’s 50 years, Smith recalled the days of the student movement as a “very turbulent time” in Atlanta’s history.
“… The established black press only printed ‘safe’ black news that often edited out the truth,” Smith wrote.
The Atlanta Inquirer “filled that need,” he said.
The newspaper is preserved in the historical archives of Morehouse, Carter said.
The credo Smith had was, “Seek the truth without fear or favor.”
Smith’s daughter said her father put a premium on education and made helping young black men a personal project.
As a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, Smith saw the growing importance of technology. And he used his money to buy what was the forerunner of the personal computer for students who couldn’t afford one, she said.
“Some of them have gone on to become very successful in computer programming,” Lori Smith said.
She describes Smith as a terrific father – “so giving” and “an all-around good guy.”
Joy for him was watching his three children singing and playing their favorite instruments, she said.
“He enjoyed being around his children and grandchildren and doting on us,” she said.
Smith had one guiding principal, “Want more for your children than you had yourself,” Lori Smith said.
“His love for me raised the bar and became the barometer for how to love,” she said. “I am who I am as a mother, woman and human being always with a giving spirit, and it is a direct reflection on the amazing man he has been to me and others.”
Smith’s survivors include Frances Smith, his wife of 56 years; daughter Lori Smith; son John B. Smith Jr.; brother, Robert L. Smith; sister Sarah Alexander; and five grandchildren.