NEW ORLEANS — During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, few people were more active than New Orleanian Jerome Smith.
For someone who has dedicated his life to fighting for the civil rights of others, Jerome Smith remains one of the most unassuming folks around, but make no mistake: He understands the fire inside him and where it originated.
“That New Orleans spirit. We have an independence, man, and that’s what I’m trying to get these children to understand,” Smith told News with a Twist.
Smith’s story is one of several News with a Twist is telling as part of MLK 50, a yearlong commemoration of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Smith was a student at Southern University when he began participating in sit-ins and freedom rides and meeting with national leaders.
He was severely beaten at Parchman Prison in Mississippi, but nothing swayed his resolve.
In the 1960s, Smith had several mentors, but there was one famous black woman in particular who helped him chart his life’s work: Fannie Lou Hamer.
“She wanted to see me,” Smith recalled. “I go to Ruleville, and she said, ‘Everybody talks about you like you’re a big ol’ man. Look how skinny you are.’ I saw these children in Mississippi, and there was something in their eyes, man, and I said, ‘This will be my mission when I leave here.'”
The encounter helped to birth the Tambourine and Fan community organization, which to this day helps kids in the 6th and 7th Wards to stay out of trouble and to grow and be empowered in knowing who they are.
He’s known in the neighborhood as “Big Duck,” because he’a always got a trail of kids following behind him.
“It’s about elevation, consciousness, being able to deal with the reverence,” Smith said. “Those young kids will never forget that, and nobody in the country is doing that.”