StoryCorps Griot: Devoted to Social Justice This week, New Orleans native Jerome Smith talks about riding segregated street cars and the decision that made him commit to a life of political activism in the name of civil rights.

StoryCorps Griot: Devoted to Social Justice

StoryCorps Griot: Devoted to Social Justice

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Jerome Smith, (right), with his friend Carol Bebelle, (left). Courtesy StoryCorps hide caption

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Courtesy StoryCorps

It was 57 years ago that Jerome Smith, then 10 years old, removed the screen that acted as a barrier between white and black passengers on a New Orleans streetcar.

"The streetcar became very hostile," Smith recalls. The event took place five years before Rosa Parks energized the civil rights movement on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala.

Smith says that as he sat in the white section of the street car in Louisiana, an older black woman from the rear of the car descended on him, hitting him so hard that "it felt like there was a bell ringing in my head."

The woman loudly said she'd teach the boy a lesson, telling him, "You should never do that, disrespect white people. You have no business trying to sit with them."

She forced Smith off the streetcar, and around the back of an auto store. But once they were behind the building, the woman's tone changed.

"Never, ever stop," the woman told Smith as she began to cry. "I'm proud of you," she said. "Don't you ever quit."

Smith went on to become a civil rights activist. Today, he teaches young people about getting involved in politics.

The StoryCorps Griot booth is currently in Memphis, Tenn. Next stop is Harlem, New York.

All the Griot Initiative recordings are archived at the Library of Congress. A copy of each interview will also go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Now you can read more stories like this one in the first ever StoryCorps book, Listening Is An Act of Love.

This segment was produced by Katie Simon. Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.