Who is John Clay Smith Jr.?
John Clay Smith Jr. was born in Omaha Nebraska on April 15th, 1942. He was raised primarily by his mother, Emily Verna Williams Smith (later Martin), after his father, J. Clay Smith Sr., was killed in an industrial accident in 1951.
From his earliest youth Smith always took leadership roles in his endeavors. For instance, Smith became the first African‐American to be elected Governor of Nebraska's "Boys State," in which capacity, he was invited to meet with President Eisenhower during the 1960 White House Conference on Children & Youth.
Smith attended college at Creighton University, paying his way with scholarships and part-time jobs. It was there that he met his first wife, Olivia Blackamore. They were married after his graduation in 1964, and had a son the following year and twins the year after.
After Creighton, Smith moved from Omaha to Washington D.C. to enroll at the Howard University School of Law from which he graduated in 1967. After a brief stint at the District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency, he joined the Judge Advocate General Corps. While there, he also earned an LLM from the George Washington University Law School in 1970 to which he would add a juris doctor degree from the same school seven years later.
Leaving JAGC in 1971, Smith was hired to work on anti-trust issues at the firm of Arent, Fox, Kintner, and Plotkin. At the same time he worked briefly as an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Law and began a deep and lifelong involvement with professional and community organizations. These would ultimately include everything from his local church and charities benefiting D.C.'s children to law school and bar associations to groups dedicated to the civil rights of African Americans and other disadvantaged groups.
In 1974 Smith joined the Federal Communications Commission as its deputy chief in the rapidly changing field of cable television and advanced to the post of associate general counsel two years later. He also became a member of the Administrative Conference of the United States. In 1978, President Carter appointed him as a member of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. In March 1981, the newly elected President Reagan appointed Smith the commission's acting head due to his status as its only republican member and the rapid departure of his democratic counterparts.
In fact, the other members of the commission left so quickly that Smith had to be temporarily given unilateral authority so that it could function without a quorum. There was some speculation that this position might be made permanent, which grew louder after a failed nomination, but whether because the self-described Lincoln Republican was out of step with Reagan's vision of the party or simply because of the stigma of being a Carter appointee, Clarence Thomas was nominated instead and became the new EEOC head in March 1982. Smith left the commission in August of the same year.
After leaving the EEOC in 1982, Smith accepted a position as a visiting professor at Howard, joining the regular faculty in the fall of 1983. In 1986 he was appointed dean in the midst of a crisis over the school's accreditation. His two-year tenure as dean was tumultuous. Smith made controversial decisions aimed at raising academic standards and bar passage rates and fundraised continually to stabilize the school's finances. By the time he left to concentrate on his writing, the school was on firmer footing.
After resigning as dean, Smith returned to being a regular law professor. With the exception a brief stint as a visiting professor at Georgetown for the 1995-1996 school year, he remained on the Howard Law faculty until his retirement in 2004.
Smith gave numerous speeches throughout his career. He was particularly prolific during his time in the federal government, when his FCC and EEOC work and his positions as presidents of the WBA and FBA had him speaking at forums all over the country. Many of his speeches were ultimately published, and even the unpublished ones circulated due to Smith's willingness to provide copies of his work to interested parties by mail.
He also wrote extensively, publishing articles on legal subjects, communications, civil rights, politics, and history that made him an authority on the history of the black lawyer in America. After leaving his post as dean to focus on his writing, this reputation was cemented in 1993 by the publication of his first book Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer. An encyclopedic history of early African American legal pioneers based on many years of painstaking research, the book won praise for its comprehensive approach to a neglected area of scholarship. It was followed by two edited volumes, Rebels in Law: Voices of Black Women Lawyers in 1998 and his final book Supreme Justice: Speeches and Writings on the work of Thurgood Marshall in 2002.