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Beth Smith, Civil Rights Advocate And Civic Leader, Dies At 96

Courtesy photo
Louis Memorial Chapel

Beth K. Smith, who died Wednesday at age 96, was out front as an activist before many women of her generation.

Smith was a civil rights and social justice pioneer in the 1960s, pushing for fair housing and taking an active role in helping to pass public accommodations in Kansas City.

She was an early advocate for women in the workplace and public life.  In 1980, she helped found the Central Exchange, which began in Crown Center as an unusual networking women’s club that received national recognition.

Smith also co-founded the Women’s Employment Network, which provides training, resources and even professional clothing to women with economic and professional challenges.

Active in Jewish causes, she promoted interfaith cooperation and was involved with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now known as the National Conference for Community and Justice. She served on the board of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Bureau and with her husband, helped found the Jewish Community Foundation.

Smith had a broad reach on national and local nonprofit boards. Her commitments included Common Cause, United Way of Greater Kansas City, The Truman Library Institute and Museum, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and the American Jazz Museum.

Alvin Brooks, a civil rights activist and former Kansas City councilman, said he and Beth Smith had been friends since 1968.

“She was not afraid to speak out and voice her concern,” Brooks told KCUR. “When she felt something was not fair,  she tried to make changes.”

Bert Berkley, Chairman of the Board of Tension Envelope in Kansas City, said few citizens have made a greater impact than Beth Smith.

"Her leadership is reflected in her community activities that resulted in the founding of a number of civic organizations that have made Kansas City a more livable city," Berkley said. 

Smith's daughter, Debbie Smith, said her friends and those of her three siblings were always welcome at the dinner table, which was a lively clearing house of ideas and conversation.

"I think one of my mothers greatest strengths is that she had 100 concentric circles of friends and commitments," the younger Smith said. "She just loved being part of this community."

Smith earned her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and a master’s in public administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she later taught leadership courses as an adjunct professor.

She was married for 50 years to the late Edward A. Smith, a founding partner of the Smith Gill Fisher & Butts law firm, which later merged into Bryan Cave.

Smith is survived by her four children Sarah Malino, Judith Smith, Debbie Smith and James Smith, ten grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

She was a member of Congregations Beth Shalom and Beth Torah.

Funeral Services will be held at 2 p.m. at Congregation Beth Torah.  Burial will be at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Raytown.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR. She can be reached on twitter @laurazig or email at lauraz@kcur.org.

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