John McNeill Smith Jr., attorney, state legislator, and teacher, was born in Rowland, Robeson County, N.C., on 9 April 1918. Smith was graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1938 and received his law degree from Columbia University in 1941. After World War II service in the Navy as a bomb disposal officer in North Africa, the Middle East, China, Burma, and India, Smith returned to North Carolina to practice law in Greensboro with Smith, Moore, Smith, Schell, and Hunter, a firm that became one of the largest in the state.
Smith became known as an advocate of human rights and equal justice, frequently taking cases that other lawyers refused. In 1963, he was the attorney for University of North Carolina students in the Speaker Ban case. From 1958 to 1962, Smith was co-counsel for Junius Irving Scales, a Communist Party member who was charged with advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government. In 1960, Smith was the negotiator between black and white leaders during the lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro. He continued acting as a negotiator in the desegregation of hotels, motels, and sit-down restaurants.
In 1970, Smith was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives, and, in 1972, to the North Carolina Senate. From 1971 to 1978, he developed a reputation as a liberal lawmaker, supporting such issues as tax reform, education, energy, consumer issues, creation of a state Department of Transportation, tougher laws against drunk drivers, and consolidation of the University of North Carolina system. In 1978, Smith unsuccessfully ran for the United States Senate, losing in the Democratic primary. Smith built his campaign around defeating incumbent Jesse Helms. After his defeat, Smith returned to civil litigation and also taught constitutional law at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 1989-1990, Smith was ranked as one of the nation's most influential lawyers by the National Law Journal for his work in establishing the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union. From 1992 to 1993, Smith traveled to Estonia to help the Soviet republic in its legal preparations to become self governing.
From the guide to the McNeill Smith Papers, 1937-1999, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection.)