When an assassin killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Lawnside School Board president Morris L. Smith acted quickly to pay homage to the civil rights leader in his South Jersey community.
Five days after King was slain, the school district, led by Mr. Smith, adopted a resolution to make King’s Jan. 15 birthday a holiday, commencing in 1969. Lawnside was believed to be the first municipality to commemorate the day, 14 years before it was declared a federal holiday.
Mr. Smith, 87, an activist who championed civil rights and diversity, an inventor, a chemist and engineer, a community leader, and a Sunday school teacher, died Wednesday, Dec. 9, at his Lawnside home of complications from colon cancer.
A longtime resident of the historically Black town that was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Mr. Smith said he wanted to do something “impactful” to honor King’s memory. A copy of the resolution sent to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, is on display in the school district.
“He was ahead of the game,” said Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society. “He was that kind of person.”
Mr. Smith was also at the forefront in the fight for racial justice in the New Jersey judiciary. As a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement, he worked to get more minorities appointed to the bench and helped push a mandate this year requiring lawyers to undergo implicit bias training, said Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the Jersey Courts.
“I can’t imagine a better legacy,” said Grant. “Mr. Smith walked the walk.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Smith led a movement as chairman of the United Methodist Homes of New Jersey to divest millions of dollars of investments with companies that had dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa. An international boycott eventually ended apartheid and brought Nelson Mandela to power.
A chemist and researcher at the Scott Paper Co. in Philadelphia, Mr. Smith fought to increase minority hiring. He was the cofounder and chairman of the company’s Minority Employment Task Force.
During a career spanning more than three decades, he headed research teams that developed nontoxic dyes and fragrances used today to make colored and patterned paper products. He was awarded four patents for innovations, according to the company, now Kimberly-Clark, based in Irving, Texas. He retired in 1995.
Even at home, Mr. Smith enjoyed tinkering, said his son, Morris G. Smith, a Superior Court judge. He taught his sons how to make paper during experiments in the backyard, he said.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better father,” his son said.
The second of three sons, Mr. Smith was born in Camden and grew up in Magnolia and Lawnside. He graduated from Haddon Heights High School in 1951.
During college, Mr. Smith was drafted by the Army in 1955 and served three years with the Seventh Army in Germany as a cryptographer. He received an honorable discharge as a corporal.
Mr. Smith obtained a bachelor’s in chemistry in 1958 from Michigan State University.
After a two-year courtship, Mr. Smith in 1959 married Alice Gray, a teacher he met through mutual friends. The couple renewed their vows in 2019 for their 60th anniversary.
Mr. Smith was a fixture in Lawnside, a tiny community settled before the Civil War as a haven for free Blacks and runaway slaves. A sports enthusiast, he coached Lawnside youth baseball for three decades.
He also mentored countless young Black males and current Lawnside School District Superintendent Ronn Johnson.
“I used to call him an icon,” Johnson said. “Here’s a man who committed his life to social justice and bringing about change in this country.”
Mr. Smith was a lifelong member of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Lawnside, where he served as superintendent of the Sunday school for more than 50 years.
In addition to his wife of 61 years and son Morris, Mr. Smith is survived by sons Wesley and Stephen, eight grandchildren, and a host of other relatives and friends.
A viewing will be Friday, Dec. 18, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Haddonfield United Methodist Church, 29 Warwick Road, Haddonfield, N.J. 08033. A private funeral will be on Saturday, Dec. 19, at 11 a.m. and will be livestreamed at https://www.facebook.com/Carl-Miller-Funeral-Home-112671892089613/ Interment will be at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church cemetery, Lawnside.