Richard Smith is the first to admit that, at times, he steps on people’s toes, which doesn’t always sit well with the people attached to those toes. But Smith’s response to the criticism is blunt and bold and typical of him: If you don’t want your toes stepped on, move them.
Smith is president of the Delaware branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a position he’s held for the past three years. It’s become a highly visible position because Smith has made it that way, and he’s made it that way for a reason.
“I’ve probably been in the newspaper more than any black man in the last 20 years. It seems like I’m in the paper every three days,” Smith says with a laugh. “But if you want to make positive change in the world, you can’t worry about what people think about you or the way you do business. I’m in the paper because that’s the best way to put the focus where we need to put it, on the people who need our help. I’m not in the paper to feed my ego, like I know some people think. But I quit worrying about that a long time ago. My job is to give a voice to people who don’t have one, no matter who they are.”
Smith laughs again. “And when you have a voice like mine, it tends to be heard.”
According to some leaders of the African-American community in Delaware and beyond, speaking loudly is necessary in this day and age, when so much of the community’s attention is focused on its often rocky relationship with law enforcement and local government. Richard “Mouse’’ Smith was elected president not to make friends, but to influence people.
“I’ll tell you this: Mouse has moved the NAACP in Delaware to a different level, and that’s a good thing,’’ says state representative Charles Potter Jr. of Wilmington. “I think he’s done an outstanding job. People say he’s controversial, but he brings attention to the issues that need attention, and that’s something that was lacking. He’s a good agitator who knows how to get attention, and that’s something we need. He’s using all the tools he has.”
Seated from left: Melvin Phillips, Jea Street, Smith and Alicia Clark. Standing, from left: Kimoko Harris, Jeremy Collins and Bill Ashe Jr.
One of Smith’s priorities is to make sure that law enforcement and government officials are held accountable for their actions in the African-American community. That was evident in two recent Wilmington police shootings of two black men. The first came in January 2015, when officers shot 24-year-old Marvin Jones after a traffic stop on Vandever Avenue, which left Jones paralyzed from the waist down. Initial police reports said Jones, a convicted felon, had a handgun and fired it. A later report said that, though Jones did have the gun, he did not fire.
The next highly publicized case came in September on Tulip Street in Wilmington, when police shot and killed 28-year-old Jeremy McDole. McDole was in a wheelchair and, according to witnesses, threatening to shoot himself with a handgun. Officers said McDole made gestures that indicated he had a gun. Investigators reported that when McDole made a motion for the alleged gun, despite repeated warnings to show his hands, officers fired several times.
Smith made the newspaper afterward because he refused to believe the police reports on face value.
“I don’t know what happened, but I do know that I don’t trust the police to investigate themselves,’’ Smith says. “That’s what’s important to me and the NAACP, having an impartial special prosecutor conduct the investigations so there is no doubt. All we’re doing in those cases and other cases is asking for fair and impartial justice, and we’re just not getting it.”
Though Smith is known as an agitator, he and his organization were also instrumental in keeping Wilmington from being another Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore, Md., where similar cases led to destruction and looting. He made it clear that he wanted to work with Wilmington police chief Bobby Cummings and his department to avoid what happened in Missouri and Maryland. There were demonstrations and protests in Wilmington, but no violence.
“That’s not what we’re about,” Smith says. “You can strongly oppose injustice and be strong in your opinions without resorting to violence, and that was our message to our community. That doesn’t solve anything. If anything, it just leads to more problems for the community.
“We want to give the system a chance to work,” Smith adds. “We just don’t trust the system as it currently stands.”
Smith was born on the East Side of Wilmington in 1949.
Smith—he was tagged with the Mouse nickname as a child because he was smaller than other kids his age—has been involved in the civil rights movement for more than 50 years. He was born on the East Side of Wilmington in 1949, attended Howard High and, like most of his friends, belonged to a gang. His was the 13th Street Stompers. Smith is quick to point out, however, that the gangs of his day were nothing like the violent, gun-packing gangs of right now.
“We mostly got together and played sports, although there would be [fist] fights every now and then,” says Smith. “It was a different world back then, and the gangs were more like clubs. There were stores on every corner in Wilmington, and people would hang out peacefully and everybody got along.”
Things changed in 1963. Gang violence started to escalate. When a teenager was shot to death on the North Market Street Bridge, he became the first gang-related death in Delaware. The murder prompted the gangs to call a truce. It also prompted city officials to start sports leagues. They even supplied uniforms and equipment.
“That ended the gang wars,’’ Smith recalls. “And they ended because the gang members had had enough of the violence, and the people in power took the time and spent the money to make a change in their community. And that’s what we need now, that kind of leadership from the city and state and that kind of commitment from the people, the community.”
Smith still keeps in touch with many of those former gang members, many of whom overcame the poverty of their youth.
“A lot of those guys in the gangs became business people and did very well,” Smith says. “Some became politicians and judges. Some worked for DuPont and Hercules, and they became strong members of the community. They’ve shown what you can accomplish when you get an opportunity and you’re willing to work hard. And that’s what we’re all about now—making sure everybody has an equal opportunity to succeed in life.”
Smith wasn’t that interested in civil rights for most of his young life, simply because he was unaware of what civil rights were. “We had a mixed community, and we played together and worked together,” he says. “So I didn’t know racism until 1961.”
That’s when Smith found out that some restaurants in Wilmington were still segregated, almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. That discovery triggered something deep within him, so he joined protest groups that helped integrate those restaurants.
“That changed my life,” Smith says. “That’s when I knew what my calling was. I saw what injustice was and I saw how to combat that injustice, and that was by organizing and speaking with one voice.”
Smith’s interest in human rights led him to the peace movement of the late 1960s and protesting the Vietnam War “right next to a bunch of hippies,” he says. Smith’s passion for civil rights was fanned in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He vividly remembers the riots that broke out across the nation, including in Wilmington. He started learning about people like Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton and their roles in the struggle for equality. Smith wanted to be part of it.
Smith, still in his teens, joined the NAACP.
Smith knows many people think he’s loud and aggressive and sometimes pushy. He also knows those traits make friends as well as enemies. Smith only wants results. He usually gets them.
“I do have a way of stepping on people’s toes,” Smith says. “It’s never malicious or personal, but that’s who I am and I’m not going to change. And I don’t mind it when it’s the other way around and people step on my toes. You have to have a thick skin in this business.
“You always get resistance from people when you’re outspoken and have strong opinions so, yes, I have had some problems with some of the branches [of the Delaware NAACP] and some problems with some of the members,” Smith says. “But that’s how you get things done, and that’s the only thing I care about—getting things done and giving a voice to people who don’t have one.”
Dr. Donald Morton, executive director of the Complexities of Color Coalition and the pastor at Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral in Wilmington—a community leader for many years—has worked with Smith on several projects. He also says Smith has given the Delaware NAACP a much-needed shot in the arm.
“Statewide, we had not been as active prior to Mouse coming in [as executive director],” Morton says. “We had no one who could put the pressure on the places and systems and structures and individuals to do the right thing. Mouse came along when we needed him, at a time when the NAACP had the proverbial laryngitis. He resurrected an organization that had struggled and made it relevant again.”
Potter, state representative for District 1, which encompasses some of Wilmington’s most troubled neighborhoods, has known Smith for more than 30 years and has worked with him closely. Though Potter doesn’t always agree with Smith, he always respects his opinion and his approach.
“You know he’s going to be there for you, and you know he’s not afraid to deal with the big issues of the day,” Potter says. “That’s what you want from your leader—somebody who is willing to be accountable.”
Even strong supporters like Potter and Morton, however, say Smith’s caustic approach can be counterproductive. There are times when he could and should be more diplomatic, they say. A case in point came last year when Smith compared police to the Ku Klux Klan. An angry Delaware law enforcement community criticized Smith for spewing “irresponsible rhetoric.”
“Let’s be clear: Mouse and I don’t always agree,” Morton says. “He’s rubbed me the wrong way, just like he’s rubbed other people the wrong way. But the important thing is what’s he accomplished, and he’s accomplished a lot. Before, we had no statewide voice, not even a chapter voice. Mouse should be celebrated for his efforts to organize the state and make sure the local chapters are active, because they weren’t.”
Charles Brittingham, who preceded Smith as Delaware president and is now head of the Wilmington branch of the NAACP, declined to comment for this article, as did La Mar Gunn, director of the Dover branch.
Smith makes a point to Gov. Jack Markell at a recent education summit.
Smith has made his mark on a larger stage, working with members of the national NAACP to effect change in Delaware and across the country.
“I’m president of his fan club,” says Hilary O. Shelton, the NAACP’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy and the executive director of the Washington, D.C., bureau. “I’ve always appreciated the hard work and commitment I sense coming from president Smith. Of course, I call him Mouse. I just love the fact that he’s so down to earth and willing to work with anybody to accomplish our goals. He understands his community in Wilmington and throughout the state of Delaware, and he’s tireless when it comes to working for them.
“I just think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Shelton adds. “He’s a jewel in the NAACP family.”
Shelton says one reason Smith is held in such high regard in the national organization is that, despite his reputation for being hard-headed, he’s always willing to listen to the other side of an argument.
“He loves to bounce different ideas around and see how you react to them,” Shelton says. “He obviously has very strong opinions about the different issues facing us today, but he really wants to hear your ideas and get your perspective. He’s willing to listen and to adapt, and that’s important in our organization. It’s a political world, and the more strong voices we have representing us, the better.”
One of Smith’s earliest forays into that political world came in the 1970s, when he met and ended up supporting a candidate for one of Delaware’s two seats in the U.S. Senate, a young, mostly unknown Joe Biden. Smith introduced Biden to leaders in the African-American community and made sure the candidate understood the issues that were important to them.
“Mouse’s relationship with the vice president—and, of course, he wasn’t vice president then—really shows the kind of man and the kind of leader he is,” says Shelton. (He also knows Biden well.) “He took Biden around the neighborhoods, and Mouse knew who the movers and shakers were, and he also explained what the challenges were in the community. Biden was well-schooled and educated on those issues by Mouse, and that was a big reason Biden got so much support from the African-American community in Delaware. He understood their issues better than the other candidates, and Mouse is the main reason for that.”
Smith says he didn’t know what to expect when he met Biden, and he was suspicious of his motives when the candidate solicited his help. Those suspicions disappeared quickly, however, and the two formed a bond that lasts to this day.
“I just found Joe Biden to be a down-to-earth guy who really cared about the issues we faced in the black community and was willing to meet with us and listen to our concerns,” Smith says. “We just didn’t get that from a lot of candidates for office back then, and I’m proud that I helped him get his foot in the door, so to speak, with African-Americans in Delaware. The fact that Joe Biden was white didn’t mean nearly as much to me as the belief that he really cared.”
Smith’s supporters say that color-blind approach is typical. One thing he emphasizes—and something that some African-Americans have opposed him on—is representing all people, not just black people.
Though some African-American leaders are leery of that approach, others embrace it.
“All Mouse cares about are results,” Morton says. “Because of that, he’s been criticized by some people in our community because he’s been willing to work with individuals who are traditionally not necessarily friends of the NAACP. He doesn’t care about being politically correct. All he cares about are those who are marginalized, those who are voiceless, those who are vulnerable and impoverished. And now, [as state president] he has the platform to make sure those issues are in the forefront of what our city and state need to address.”
As for key issues on Smith’s agenda, Potter points to his work with law enforcement, especially the effort to have police wear body cameras and have GPS devices installed in police vehicles.
“That’s to improve the safety for the officers and improve their performance by making sure they’re in the areas they’re supposed to be in,’’ Potter says. “It makes everybody accountable, and it just makes sense for everybody involved, and that’s the point Mouse has been making all along: It’s best for everybody.”
Potter says that leads back to Smith’s main goal as president—to make sure black youth and all minorities are treated fairly by law enforcement and local government officials. Another area in which the two have worked closely is the expansion of the Port of Wilmington because of the potential jobs for Delawareans of any color.
Another priority for Smith regards the future of the NAACP and its place in Delaware. He knows that he and other leaders won’t be around forever, that others will eventually have to carry the torch.
“It’s critical that we mobilize young people and make them understand that there are causes that are bigger than us as individuals,” Smith says. “There are many young people who are involved in the fight, but there are too many of them who don’t understand how important the NAACP has been to our past and how important it will be for our future.”