Nate Smith was a 1960’s civil rights activist in Pittsburgh who is best remembered for his work serving African American labor workers. He used his own body to stop bulldozers working on the U.S. Steel Tower and the Three Rivers Stadium because there were no blacks on the job. Smith’s presence was powerful. He led thousands of marchers in Pittsburgh during the black labor union protests. His efforts with U.S. Steel Tower and Three Rivers led to Mayor Joe Barr and Mayor Pete Flaherty cutting a deal with Smith’s Black Construction Coalition to hire 1,250 blacks into the construction unions over the next four years.
Smith was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1929. At age 12, he lied to serve in WWII from 1940-1942. He had dropped out of high school to serve. He and his wife Minnie, (who were married for over 60 years), had three children, Nate Jr., Renee and Sabrina.
Though he could barely read, Smith created Operation Dig in 1969, a new program that helped train disenfranchised groups with the skills they needed for labor jobs. Smith said, ” That’s my philosophy… If you live in America, you should be able to have bacon and eggs on Sunday morning. It means you can work. That you got a job.” In 1970, Smith devised the Pittsburgh Plan, a plan that helped create jobs for minorities through a collaborative effort of government, unions, and activists to ensure the inclusion of African Americans into building trade unions. He was often the target of death threats and attacks because of his aggressive and unrelenting labor equalization efforts. Smith was the victim of a drive-by shooting in which he suffered a shot to the leg. Then during a game at Three Rivers Stadium, Smith’s son was doused with gasoline and set on fire, suffering third-degree burns.
Labor union workers in Pittsburgh attribute the efforts of Smith to their success. According to the New Pittsburgh Courier, Smith helped an estimated 17,000 people get their union cards. He served as executive board member of Operation PUSH/Rainbow Coalition and was invited on several trips to Africa and the Middle East to consult with Golda Meier and Yasser Arafat on construction issues with the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Smith appeared on the cover of Jet Magazine in 1971 and 1974 and was named among Ebony Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Black Americans. At age 75, he finally received his high school diploma.
Smith was mugged while walking to a bus stop in his neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He suffered a head injury, which led to the doctor’s discovery that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He had already been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was legally blind. With a need for constant care, his wife Minnie moved him to a nursing facility.
Nate Smith died on March 31, 2011. He was 82 years old.
(Photo: Post Gazette)