As a newborn, he attended the first time. Selma's famous Edmund Pettus Bridge was where protestors were brutally beaten and tear gassed by state troopers. Smith's great-aunt, Amelia Boynton Robinson, helped him to the bridge in a stroller during 30th anniversary.
He told The Associated Press, "I consider myself a mover baby."
Twenty-five years later, Smith would swap roles with Boynton Robinson as the Selma voting rights strategist, civil rights matriarch, and Smith guided her wheelchair across the bridge at the 50-year anniversary of the march that she led.
Smith, now 27, is currently in Selma as part of a multiracial delegation consisting of Gen Z and millennial activists. They are seeking to change the ongoing voting rights debate surrounding their generation's access to political power.
"If our national narrative focuses only on Black people and voting rights, our message is too narrow." He said that we are missing it" and he was preparing to share a message in Selma.
Between the 2016 general election in the United States and the midterm election in the United States, tens of millions of American youth will be eligible to vote. Smith views this opportunity as a way to reenergize civic engagement among young adults. It also serves to pay tribute to his great-aunt.
Smith, who is codirector of student engagement and youth engagement at the Poor People's Campaign (a revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s economic injustice campaign.
Along with the Rev. Smith, along with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition (and the Transformative Justice Network) planned a second reenactment on Monday of the 1965 marches. The group will travel 11 miles (18 km) along the original route towards Montgomery.
Other groups of marchers are expected to follow their route and arrive in the capital for a rally Friday.
The stalwart foot soldiers of this movement faithfully attended march commemorations for decades. They encouraged their grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and children to help carry the cause across the bridge. As the commemorations became a common photo op for elected representatives and candidates to boost their civil rights bona fides. Young people's historic position and presence in this movement was lost.
John Giggie, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, stated that "the most common memory of the movement today is one that's largely lead by older Black intellectuals, activists, and that's a convenient remembering, but it's still not completely accurate."
Giggie stated that almost every aspect of Alabama's racial justice movement was dependent on people as young and high schoolers being willing to take risks, make sacrifices and be a part of it, regardless of whether it was Selma, Montgomery or Birmingham's civil rights history.
"How can we have not served the younger generation well?" He said that he didn't insist on the fact that you should look back and see yourself in this movement.
Washington lawmakers failed to meet the January deadline civil right leaders had given for passing federal voting rights legislation. This was in response to a series of proposals from conservative-leaning states that sought to limit access to early voting, end same-day voter registration, limit mail in vote casting, reduce the number of ballot drop box used in pandemic-era election, and curb access to early voting.
This wave was partly driven by false claims made by former President Donald Trump, and other Republican leaders, about widespread voter fraud in 2020's presidential election. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that between 2021 and mid-January this year, more than 250 pieces of legislation were introduced, pre-filed, or carried by lawmakers in 27 states. This was referred to as voter suppression measures.
Some fear that the window of opportunity to reverse state-level voter suppression is closing with midterm elections coming up this fall. Advocates see the Selma commemoration this year as a pivotal rallying point, with so much at stake.
Smith was a Radford University student who set up campus voter registration drives. He said that he views Washington's inaction as an insult to all those who died on the bridge at Selma 57-years ago.
Boynton Robinson was one of the first Black women who successfully registered to vote in the 1930s Jim Crow South. She spent many decades trying to register Black voters in towns controlled segregationist white leaders. She was a leader in organizing the 1965 marches and invited King to attend, hoping that he would help the nationalization of the struggle for voting rights.
State troopers and Dallas County sheriff's officers stopped protestors at the Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965, just before King arrived in Selma. During the melee that left many injured, a trooper slapped John Lewis' head. Lewis was a student activist at the time.
Boynton Robinson told her great-nephew about how she had been struck twice, once in her arm and once in her head. She was left on the ground, gasping for air, as the sheriff refused to help.
The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 after horrifying images of violence were shown. The federal law required that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers review changes to voting laws in states with racial discrimination histories. This was nearly a decade ago. Holder v. Shelby County, an Alabama jurisdiction, was the Supreme Court's 2013 decision that removed this requirement. Critics claim it opened the door to a national wave of regressive voter laws.
Smith stated to the AP that "with all the voter suppression techniques happening, it's so obvious that what our ancestors talked about in the 60s is still relevant today."
The Rev. William Barber II, cochair of the Poor People's Campaign said that he initially declined an invitation to speak at Sunday's event. He insisted Smith speak in Smith's place. Barber eventually delivered parts of Smith's prepared remarks after the 27-year old's blessing.
Barber said to the AP that King was leading the Montgomery bus boycott at Elliott's age. We shouldn't make people wait until they turn 40 or 50 to become leaders in the movement. His generation must speak. They are not the people of tomorrow, but right now."