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Smith spurred social change beyond basketball

Posted February 8, 2015 7:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2015 5:07 a.m. EST

— To know Dean Smith is to understand his social conscience, part of which was molded at the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

When the church was founded in 1958, Smith, then an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under Frank McGuire, was one of its first parishioners.

On its website, the church describes itself as “a progressive fellowship of active, open-minded Christians with a strong commitment to environmental and social justice.”

It was there that Smith, a self-described liberal, would help change Chapel Hill.

Along with pastor emeritus Rev. Robert Seymour and a black UNC student, Smith integrated The Pines Restaurant, where the UNC basketball team ate its meals, in 1964.

Interim church pastor Rev. Marcus McFaul described that moment as the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

“You should never be proud of doing what’s right,” McFaul said from the pulpit on Sunday, quoting Smith, who died the night before at 83. “You should just do what’s right. On and off the court, the man knew who he was.”

Two years after that meal at The Pines, Smith recruited Charlie Scott, UNC’s first African-American scholarship athlete. Seymour urged Smith to recruit a black player, according to news reports.

Smith brought Scott to the church during a recruiting trip.

“That was a change in format,” Scott said in a 2014 story for the Rams Club, UNC’s athletic booster organization. “All the other schools that I visited, that was never on the agenda. It was basically the school, the campuses and the program itself. Coach Smith did ask me to go to church with him, and I did, and that was one of the things that he did that showed me the difference in his personality.”

In Seymour’s 2004 book “When Life Becomes Worthwhile: A Christian Perspective,” Smith paid tribute to the pastor in the foreward:

“I can truthfully say I can’t remember a Sunday, when I was in town, that I didn’t look forward to going to church to hear Bob preach,” he wrote. “His preaching always succeeded brilliantly in what many pastors try to do: comfort the guilty and make guilty the comfortable. But what I think really makes Bob’s sermons special is that, as you hear or read them, you feel like you are being ministered to rather than preached at.”

Smith credited Seymour for pushing him to speak out on social issues, from supporting civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War, to ending the death penalty and promoting homosexual tolerance.

The church's back row, where Seymour sat Sunday, was reserved for the two old friends, one of whom is now gone.

Seymour described his longtime friend as someone with personal integrity, fairness and faith.

“He will have a lasting legacy as a man who stood up for what is right,” Seymour said.