Black musician honored for taking a stand against racism in 1960s

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RAND, WV (WOWK) – “I wish it could be completely adjusted for the rate of inflation, but this is a check to pay you back what the union took from you,” said American Federation of Musicians Local 136 President Mike Pushkin to a round of applause. 

A special ceremony honored 79-year-old bass player Johnny Smith Saturday at Levi First Missionary Baptist Church in Rand.

Pushkin apologized to Smith – the only surviving member of the band “The In Crowd” — which was punished for taking a stand against racism in 1968. 

“I don’t think that this necessarily makes things right. Justice deferred is still justice denied. What this reaffirms is that Mr. Smith and his bandmates were right,” Pushkin said. 

So what happened?  First… a little history. 

Johnny Smith was a popular musician in the Charleston area. He bought his first bass guitar at 18 while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. 

When he returned home, he began playing in rock and jazz bands throughout the Charleston area. 

He once played with Otis Redding in Beckley and did several shows with John Lee Hooker in Charleston.  

“Yeah I sat in with him, I played with him,” Smith said of the gigs he played with Hooker. “I found him to be a good musician, a personable type of guy.” 

Smith worked as a lineman with the power company by day and played music on nights and weekends. 

And one night — the racism of the 60s was something he couldn’t ignore. 

Johnny Smith said that in 1968 he and his band were playing on the third floor of the Charleston Athletic Club which was on Kanawha Boulevard at the time. Smith said a Black man and white woman sat down at one of the tables, but no one served them.   

“They just set there and set there and set there,” Smith explained. “And I think they danced a couple times, and then when they set back down nobody had come and this was an appreciable amount of time, it was over 15 minutes.” 

Smith said he and his bandmates talked it over and decided to tell the manager about the situation, but nothing happened.” 

“Since he still didn’t send anybody to wait on them, just continued, we quit playing,” said Smith. 

He said taking that stand led to them being kicked out of the club. Worse – the musicians’ union fined each member $150, which would be more than $1,100 today. 

“It actually enraged me to the point that I never joined the union again. I never went back,” Smith said.  

Johnny’s son Bryan said gigs only paid about $30 back then, so the $150 fine was significant. 

“He was married, it wasn’t just him so when they levied that fine on him they knew full well what they were doing and they were going to teach him a lesson,” Bryan Smith said. 

Bryan says hearing the story over the years angered him but he hopes the union’s actions on Saturday will give his parents some peace. 

It says a lot about the evolution of the union and the mindset. It says a lot about the evolution of the area,” he said. 

Bryan’s longtime friend Joe Slack got the ball rolling — telling Pushkin how the union treated johnny smith back then. 

To make amends, the union reinstated Johnny Smith and paid him back $250. 

“Seeing justice almost done is just as important as being strong enough to forgive and so I’m thankful that I was able to see this, I really am,” Johnny Smith said after the ceremony. 

Smith said even after he quit the union, he was still able to get paying gigs around Charleston.  

His family hopes that he will one day be considered for the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. 

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