Morris L. Smith was Lawnside Board of Education president when the board passed a resolution April 9, 1968, the day of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, designating King's birthday, Jan. 15, a holiday. The Lawnside school board is believed to be the first governmental entity in the nation to do so.
(Photo: Chris LaChall, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post)
Coretta Scott King sent a letter of thanks to the Lawnside Board of Education about their resolution to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday on his birthday.(Photo: Chris LaChall, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post)
LAWNSIDE, N.J. - Morris L. Smith remembers browsing the aisles of Morville Men's Store on April 4, 1968.
Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Around Jacksonville
But as he rifled through suits and matching ties to pick an outfit for his nephew, the background radio chatter caught his attention: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
"I was so distraught that something like that could happen," recalled Smith, now 80 and a longtime resident of Lawnside, N.J., a community in Camden County, N.J.
"I knew I had to do something impactful."
He did. Led by Smith, the Lawnside Board of Education passed a resolution April 9, 1968, the day of King's funeral, designating his Jan. 15 birthday a holiday.
The Lawnside school board claims it was the first governmental entity in the nation to do so.
The district will commemorate King's legacy Monday with an event at the elementary school where panelists will share memories of King and students will reflect on his impact.
Members of the 1968 school board - including Smith, its only survivor - will be recognized.
The 1968 resolution was forwarded to the King family; it is now displayed at the Lawnside School District.
"We were hopeful that at some point in the future the rest of the nation would catch up and do the same," Smith notes.
Coretta Scott King responded to the school board a few months later.
"The support and sharing from people like yourself give me courage and strength to try to continue my husband's work," King's widow wrote in her letter.
"I welcome your continued participation in our common endeavor as we strive toward peace, justice and brotherhood."
President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 creating a federal holiday to honor King. It was observed for the first time Jan. 20, 1986.
"Dr. King played such a significant part in this country's history and the fact that our board of education had the foresight to make his birthday a holiday is stunning to me," said Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society.
Smith said the board passed the resolution because it believed in King's message of hope, equality and civic responsibility.
"His message was of equality, but also why it's important to be a responsible citizen," Smith said. "If there is a need for change, then make a change."
He believes getting involved is even more important in today's society.
"What is happening is people are sitting back. They recognize the dysfunction, but they aren't doing anything about it."
Smith joined the school board in 1960 after earning a degree in chemistry from Michigan State University. He worked as a research chemist and technology manager for Scott Paper Co. in Philadelphia and was president of the school board from 1963 to 1974.
"The board at the time set a precedent for this country," said current school Superintendent Ronn Johnson.
"They had the social consciousness and understanding of the bigger picture."
The board was able to pass the resolution because of its leadership. Lawnside is the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the northern United States.
Smith hopes Monday's event is an opportunity to inform and share.
"It should be a learning experience for schoolchildren and adults. This is part of the local history."
Phil Dunn, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post