The sun was setting, but Eric Morton had a job to do — transport voter registration material to another part of Mississippi.
By the time the civil rights worker found a car, it was late. Danger lurked on the highways after dark, particularly for a black man in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Not wanting Morton to travel alone, Stephen L. Smith went along for the ride.
Smith was a quiet 19-year-old University of Iowa student from Marion, one of 36 volunteers from Iowa and one of about 800 from around the country using summer break to register blacks to vote as part of the project, also known as Freedom Summer.
Smith hoped to push the country to embrace equal rights by making strides in the state most resistant to integration.
The young Iowa man experienced the resistance first hand.
County sheriffs followed Morton and Smith that night as they passed through Canton, Miss. Deputies pulled the car over, detained the men and proceeded to beat Smith.
“A deputy sheriff pistol-whipped me and threatened to kill me,” Smith told Gazette assistant state editor Phyllis Fleming after the incident. Years later, in 1999, Smith told the Des Moines Register the deputy “cocked the gun and stuck it in my ear. I figured I was gone.”
The incident of July 15, 1964, would shape the rest of Smith’s bumpy life, which included a few years in the 1960s as one of Iowa’s most controversial figures. Smith drew support and scorn after becoming the second person in the nation to break the law by burning his draft card to protest the Vietnam War. He later would go on an eight-day hunger strike.
Smith had nightmares about that Mississippi beating through the end of his life, even after a heart attack left him with the mind of a child, his second wife Barbara Smith said in an interview last week.
“The sort of kid everyone liked”
Last month, Smith's high school graduating class — the Marion High School class of 1963 — celebrated its 50-year reunion.
Before Smith became politically active — some would say radical — Smith was a typical, engaged boy in high school. He played football, basketball, track and wrestling, served as a class officer, made the honor roll and even showed up in the local paper as a clean-cut kid on a school field trip to City Hall.
“He was a fairly quiet, but the sort of kid everyone liked,” said Donald Hoskins, a former classmate who is now a lawyer in Marion. “He was pleasant, bright, good in the classroom. He had one of the brightest minds I ever met.”
Another former classmate described Smith as “a pleasant, average high school classmate who was very well accepted.”
But life seemed to change when he went off to college.
As freshmen at University of Iowa, Smith invited Hoskins to attend meetings of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which focused on causes such as civil rights and anti-war efforts.
“He was an intense person with strong feelings about things,” Hoskins recalled.
That summer, Smith traveled to Mississippi. When he returned, rather than pull back from activism, Smith pushed harder.
“Watershed moment” on UI campus
By his sophomore year, Smith dove further into his causes, including one protest that earned him both praise and ridicule across the state and beyond.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was escalating. To curb increasing instances of burning draft cards, Congress in August 1965 instituted a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 for destroying a U.S. Selective Service card.
David J. Miller was the first to violate the law, on Oct. 15, 1965, at a rally in Manhattan, N.Y. He wrote in a memoir that he spent 22 months in federal prison.
Smith later would tell reporters that Miller had inspired him to take a public stand, with the intent of getting arrested five days later at the "soapbox soundoff," a weekly open-mic forum on the lower level of the Iowa Memorial Union on University of Iowa campus.
At the soundoff, students literally would stand up on a soapbox and speak on an issue of the day.
Smith alerted at least two news outlets that he planned to burn his card during the soundoff on Oct. 20 to protest the new draft policy. There were a few hundred people in the union and 25 or 30 surrounding Smith as he took his place at the microphone.
"I do not feel that five years of my life are too much to give to say that this law is wrong,” Smith said, according to several newspapers, before he removed the draft card from his coat pocket and lit it.
Some applauded, while a few heckled.
“Everybody was kind of shocked,” said Harry MacCormack, now 71, said from his home in Corvallis, Ore., last week.
MacCormack was a peace activist in the Iowa Writers Workshop and stood a few feet away from Smith that day.
“People were burning flags, but people weren't really thinking of burning draft cards. I had this vague feeling that we just took another step,” he recalled.
Smith dropped the card, which had only partially burned, to the floor, and one of two FBI agents who were at the rally picked up the paper and put it in an envelope, recalled Mary Zielinski, a reporter for the Daily Iowan who also was present.
Smith left shortly thereafter, and the crowd dispersed. The whole incident lasted about 10 minutes, Zielinski recalled.
Two days later the FBI came for Smith and took him to jail.
"He was a very reluctant hero," said Zielinski, who didn't know Smith but spent a few days covering this episode of his life. She said he didn't stand out with the long hair and military surplus clothes typical of protesters.
"He wasn't calling attention to himself, but what he felt was wrong."
But UI Archivist David McCartney, who has been retracing Smith’s life, said the moment attracted attention.
“Whether you agree with him or not, it was a watershed moment in the U.S.,” McCartney said. “It’s indicative over how deeply divided the country was over the war in southeast Asia that the incident would happen in the Midwest.”
Investigating Smith’s story has inspired McCartney to form the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network, made up of archivists, historians and civil rights veterans from around Iowa.
The group is collecting stories of Iowa's contributions for a 50-year anniversary of Freedom Summer project, in partnership with the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.
Burning his draft card would cement his controversial legacy and have lasting repercussions as he tried to move forward with his life.
Stephen Smith’s father, Frank, who lost his eye while serving in World War II and owned a local business called Smitty's Shoe Repair on Marion's town square, at the time told reporters he supported his son’s civil rights activism but couldn't understand burning his draft card.
“I’m just sick about the whole thing,” the elder Smith said. “I have no sympathy for the boy in this matter.”
Hoskins heard about the burning after it was over but wasn't surprised. Hoskins said that while some understood, others didn't, and it made life difficult for Smith, including testing his relationship with his family.
“It depends who you talked to,” Hoskins said. “Some thought it was un-American, and he was way off-base. Others could understand it but thought it was a pointless act, not worth going to jail for.”
Other anti-war activists in Iowa and across the country were encouraged by Smith's action. A second Iowa student burned his draft card days after Smith, and some members of the Students for a Democratic Society rallied to his cause.
Hoskins said publicity from the stunt hurt Frank Smith’s business and cost the family respect from some in the community.
An old high school classmate of Smith’s wrote a letter to McCartney, which is included — with the name redacted — in his collection, criticizing Smith as part of “a Communist organization determined to overthrow the government.”
Scared off by the FBI
Two days after burning his draft card, Smith was arrested at an apartment in downtown Iowa City above where the Atlas restaurant now exists, at the corner of Washington and Dubuque Streets.
Smith, who married his first wife during his trial in 1966, contested the federal charges of "willfully and knowingly mutilating and destroying the registration certificate issued to him by the Selective Service System."
Lawyers argued it was free speech, but Smith was found guilty and the conviction was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit on Nov. 7, 1966. He was let off with three years probation.
However, Smith and his second wife, Barbara, said the FBI trailed him for a few years and even contacted current and potential employers, which made it difficult for Smith to find and keep jobs.
Smith eventually left the area, and withdrew from public activism.
“I think the FBI kind of scared him on that,” Barbara Smith said. “He was still politically minded, but he was less inclined to attract public attention for what he did as he got older.”
The couple met in Madison, Wis., in 1991 at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and married in 1999 after returning to the Cedar Rapids area. A year later, while serving as an assistant professor of computer education at Kirkwood Community College, Smith suffered a massive heart attack in the parking lot and suffered severe brain damage.
Smith died on April 24, 2009, at Harmony House in Waterloo after an extended illness.
In the time she knew him before the heart attack, Barbara said her husband was a more subdued man than in his earlier days, but he continued to support his convictions. In Washington, D.C., he taught Saudis computer programming, and he took a “huge pay cut” to leave contract work for a $50,000-a-year job at Kirkwood.
He also supported conservation issues and contributed financially to causes, such as college funding for blacks.
Still, Barbara said he never regretted his actions as a youth.
“I hope people know how much he honestly cared,” she said. “It seemed like his whole life kept revolving around the same core issue — empowering people to better their life.”
If you go:
- What: "Documenting Conscience: Preserving the Stories of Iowa Civil Rights Workers," a discussion of civil rights issues
- When: 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 23
- Where: Melrose Meadows, 350 Dublin Dr., Iowa City
- Cost: Free and open to the public. Refreshments will be provided.
- Deadline: Register by noon Wednesday, Oct. 16