The day the Christians marched

Sandra ClarkPowell

Here’s a great tale which must be true. Fran Smith was there and she vouches for it.

Fran’s dad, J. Harold Smith (1910-2001), led a march down Gay Street in 1946 to the Knoxville News Sentinel and WNOX to protest media opposition to his preaching on the airwaves. Participants claim 50,000 marched, the largest gathering in Knoxville until that time. Interestingly, the rally is not mentioned in the News Sentinel’s recap of the 1940s. If it’s not reported, does that mean it did not happen?

Smith’s son, Dr. J. Don Smith, spoke to the March business forum at The Crown College in Powell. He talked about the fierce independence of Knoxville’s protestant settlers – a tradition that created hundreds of Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in these parts.

Harold Smith was a pioneer in the use of broadcast media, according to his biography. He started the Radio Bible Hour broadcast in 1935. By the mid-1940s, his son said, Knoxville’s most powerful radio station, WNOX, refused to sell him airtime.

WNOX and the News Sentinel were owned at the time by the Scripps-Howard Corporation.

“They decided ‘ignorant yahoo preachers’ were an embarrassment; called my dad a ‘hillbilly racketeer,’” Don Smith said. “The News Sentinel has a long history of being on the wrong side.”

Harold Smith protested to the Federal Communications Commission, saying he had a right to purchase advertising. The station offered free time, but Smith said free time comes with restrictions. He had a right to buy radio ads on public airways like anyone else.

Smith called on listeners to assemble and march. The News Sentinel wrote it would be surprised if 5,000 people showed. Smith countered that if 20,000 didn’t show he would leave town. The Sentinel published a pre-march story to say good-bye.

This feud was personal.

Fran Smith with her nephew, Dr. J. Don Smith, at The Crown College.

Fran Smith gives testimony to the April 14 march, which assembled at Knoxville High School. It was a beautiful day and people poured into town. They filled the gym and every classroom. Word spread that they would burn down the News Sentinel and WNOX. Fire trucks and police were called. The march was peaceful, but Scripps-Howard would not relent.

Harold Smith then moved to Texas and affiliated with a Mexican-based 50,00 watts AM station, XERF. He pastored several churches and, in 1953, as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas, he started the television broadcast of the morning worship services. According to his biography, that was one of the first regular television broadcasts of a church service in the United States.

“Always known for his fundamental, Bible-based preaching, Pastor Smith often found himself in opposition to the liberal religious movement which has proved so destructive to many church denominations. He accepted the Bible as he found it, preached it as the truth and lived by its principles.”

Don Smith concluded: “We’ve got to fight back occasionally, witness to the truth, be faithful and be gracious in victory.”

Dr. Clarence Sexton, founder of The Crown College, invited attendees to tour the school’s 30,000-square-feet Christian Heritage Center. “We have a great heritage, and what we’ve been given, we need to continue.”

The Crown College does just that by training church leaders. Graduates have been instrumental in the establishment of over 500 churches across America and around the world. Info:

(Article updated to reflect the merger of the Knoxville News and the Knoxville Sentinel in 1926.)


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