Her Steady March
The Rev. Susie B. Smith ’72 will always be an activist. Her experiences at Furman helped awaken her beliefs.
By Kelley Bruss
Arrest is never the objective. But the Rev. Susie B. Smith ’72 can’t look away when she sees injustice. So her story includes pushing for change from within institutions and also marching for change outside of institutions – sometimes to the point of handcuffs. Smith grew up Baptist and “very sheltered” in Marietta, Georgia. Her high school was integrated her senior year. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the months before she left for college.
“I knew (these events) happened, but I didn’t know they were about me,” Smith says.
She had discovered Furman when her youth choir toured the campus. While she felt a call to Christian service, Smith knew of no way for a woman to be ordained at the time. So she made the pragmatic decision to pursue Christian education or youth ministry.
She likes to say, with a big smile, that who she has become is the “fault” of Edgar McKnight, a Furman religion professor who taught a course on the life of Jesus. McKnight died in 2020.
“I had no idea who I was following until I took that class,” Smith says.
As a sophomore, Smith began a youth ministry internship at a church in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. She was troubled by the attitude of church leaders toward their Black neighbors.
“That was what woke it up,” she says of her activism. She joined Students for Democratic Action and stood in a group of about 10 to protest the Vietnam War while Furman ROTC cadets lined up across the street. She wore a black armband in honor of the student protesters killed at Kent State and was involved in Furman’s first Earth Day celebrations. These moments felt disconnected at the time, but, looking back, Smith sees her own development into a person passionate for justice.
“I was just doing the things I thought Jesus would want us to do,” she says.
After completing a Master of Divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary, Smith was ordained at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. She was determined to make a difference through “programmatic influence” and helped develop what is now Gateway House, a Greenville nonprofit devoted to adults with mental illnesses.
Then Smith came out as a lesbian and tested the support of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her first arrest came in California for disrupting the denomination’s general assembly to protest its position on same-sex unions.
Smith eventually joined the United Church of Christ and pastored for years in Pennsylvania. She was then arrested in 2003 during a Washington, D.C., protest against the Iraq War.
The message, not the arrest, is always the point, she says.
A 2021 protest outside the U.S. Senate’s Hart Building, for example, was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign to deliver “real demands about real legislation that needed to be passed and still needs to be passed.” Smith and others were arrested for refusing to disperse as they lobbied for voting rights, a national minimum wage increase, immigration reforms and ending the filibuster.
Smith retired from pastoring in 2015 but will always be an activist.
Her Furman days transformed her “from being a believer in Jesus to a follower of Jesus,” she says.
And she hasn’t looked back.