Jerome Smith with his friend Carol Bebelle in New Orleans.
It was 56 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, who went on to help found the New Orleans chapter of CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, says it was that moment that made him who he is today.
"Even though I didn't know the words 'civil rights' then," Smith says, "that opened up the door."
Smith currently directs the Tambourine and Fan, a New Orleans organization that teaches young people about civil rights, leadership and political engagement.
Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Sarah Kramer.