Looking back at the list of leaders of the 1960s and 1970s Civil Rights Movement most had no intention of being a leader. Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the two biggest names on that list but the list goes on and on. One such leader emerged in Pittsburgh much the same way.
When it was said that Blacks had no union cards to work at the construction sites or handle heavy equipment and implied that they couldn’t handle the work, Nate Smith stepped up and said, “I do, I can and I will.”
From that point on Nate took it on himself to get more Blacks into the construction trades, becoming one of the most forceful leaders in Pittsburgh and the country in the labor movement. While the NAACP, SCLC, the Urban League and other groups were fighting segregation at White food counters, on buses, Whites only swimming pools and other public and private establishments, Nate Smith was fighting to get Black people jobs building those restaurants, swimming pools, office building or stadiums.
He realized that the most important thing to any man is to be able to provide a roof over his family’s heads, food on the table and clothes on their backs, and employment was the only way this was going to happen. While others were fighting to get Blacks into college and other prestigious positions, much like Booker T. Washington before him, Nate understood that Blacks needed jobs now; that the majority of Black people were already working manual labor jobs and didn’t have college educations, which was not needed for the jobs Nate was fighting for. If you are going to work manual labor jobs, why not get paid?
Through Operation Dig he fought to get Blacks into the construction unions, not only in Pittsburgh, but also throughout the country. There were many organizations nationwide that copied his organization, but the tragedy is that as Nate got older and could no longer be out front there was no one to take his place.
When Three Rivers Stadium was built, the Civic Arena, Heinz Field, PNC Park, Console Center, all the construction work done Downtown, and the many other big and small construction projects in Pittsburgh, the biggest question has been, “Where are the Blacks? Can’t we even carry the water?”
We commend Nate Smith for the great job he did in his lifetime of helping others. No he may not have done all everyone wanted him to do, but he did more than most. He devoted his life to helping average everyday working Black people get meaningful jobs.
His death leaves a huge void in Pittsburgh and the country. There is still a great need for more Blacks in the construction industry, in the unions as well as non-union jobs. Who will be the next person to pick up the gauntlet to continue what Nate Smith started?