In 1966, the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned his attention away from the South to organize civil rights marches in Chicago, an unassuming figure emerged as a beacon for integration in Chapel Hill. Coach Dean Smith contributed as much to his community as he did while coaching the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours and two national championships.
Smith, who had been head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for five years, fueled desegregation efforts in the state when he recruited New York native Charles Scott as the school’s first African American scholarship athlete in 1966.
“There was no evidence of [opposition] in the community,” said Rev. Robert Seymour of the response to Smith’s actions to integrate UNC athletics. Seymour, a pastor emeritus at Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, worked alongside Smith to garner momentum for civil rights in Chapel Hill. “He was the only coach willing to take a stand on important issues, which helped shape the opinions of many.
“Smith played a critical role in the integration of Chapel Hill restaurant The Pines in 1964 and in helping African American friend Howard Lee purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in 1965. The coach never sought praise for his actions.
“He was always willing to give credit to other people and didn’t like the celebrity limelight,” Seymour said. “He just wanted to be a good citizen.
“Over the years Smith also has spoken out on controversial issues including the death penalty, nuclear disarmament and gay rights. But it is his early contribution to the civil rights movement that will earn Smith a place in history outside the realm of basketball.
Charlie Scott left no doubt as to Smith’s legacy at a ceremony in 2011 honoring the coach with the Naismith Good Sportsmanship Award.”We who played for Coach Smith Ö we are the luckiest people in the world.”