Lovingly known as “Dr. Bob,” Dr. Robert Smith is nationally recognized for his leadership in founding the Medical Committee for Human Rights during Freedom Summer of 1964, and is one of Mississippi’s great healthcare heroes. Equally a lover of the arts and music, the lyrics of “This Little Light of Mine” spark childhood memories of attending his grandfather’s church and being encouraged at a young age by a song that buoyed a generation through the Freedom Movement.

“My grandfather would get up in the church and yell and sing, ‘Oh, this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!’ And I would just fall out,” Smith says. “He would tell me, ‘Boy, keep on living.’”

A native of Terry, Mississippi, Smith knew he wanted to become a doctor early on, recognizing the need for change in the world. One of his formative moments was when his aunt and uncle gifted him a book containing famous African Americans.

“Only about 20 people were listed for the whole country at the time,” he says. One was Dean Dixon, the famed American orchestra conductor who was the first Black person to play for the New York City Orchestra. He inspired Smith to take up piano. As a teenager, his pursuit of music turned back into a hobby after learning and performing “Clair de Lune” for his high school.

“When I walked off the stage, they said, ‘Oh, he’s got great talent.’ I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” he laughs. “That was the last of that. I was going to become a physician.”

Smith earned his Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry from Tougaloo College and his MD from Howard University College of Medicine. After completing clinical training at Cook County Hospital, he was asked to return to Mississippi as a general practitioner by the U.S. Army due to a period of national conscription amid the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

During this time in Jackson in the 1960s, a few years before Freedom Summer, Smith formed a friendship with civil rights organizer and the NAACP’s first field officer, Medgar Evers, alongside other civil rights leaders. Together, they worked towards equality. It was through these interactions that Smith felt a more permanent calling back to Mississippi to serve underprivileged and disenfranchised Black communities who were often turned down at area clinics and hospitals.

A civil rights leader in his own right, Smith provided medical services for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma-to-Montgomery march. His medical committee went on to instigate change in healthcare institutions across the South, expanding access to fair and equal health services for African Americans. Smith’s care and compassion have since touched thousands of lives through teaching and treatment, and he still practices in Jackson to this day.

“If somebody was coming to Jackson, what would I tell them? If they are healthcare, we have some of the greatest healthcare institutions in the country, both primary and secondary,” Dr. Smith said.

He wants to continue bringing Black doctors back to the state to prove that Mississippi can stand toe-to-toe with the best in national healthcare.

As President and Chief Executive Officer of Mississippi Family Health Center, Ltd., he’s shining the way for future minority physicians to become leading doctors.

“How do I carry my light? I go by my motto: keep it simple,” Smith said.