Hon. Charles Z. Smith was born in Lakeland, Florida in 1927. His father was a Cuban immigrant and his mother was African American. After serving in the Air Force during and after World War II, he moved to Philadelphia to earn his undergraduate degree at Temple University in 1952. He earned his law degree from the University of Washington in 1955, and has lived in Seattle for most of the last fifty plus years since.
After graduating the UW, Smith served in the King County Prosecutor’s office, and was later named Special Assistant to United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Smith returned to Seattle, where over the course of over two decades he served as a professor and as a dean at the University of Washington Law School.
Smith, whose wife was born in Hawaii, was an active member in the movement for Redress for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. A longtime member and later Board member of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL), Smith hosted early discussions about the need for redress in the late 1960s, and he provided both formal and behind-the-scenes legal advice to redress movement activists throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Smith was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1988. He was the first African American to hold such a position. In 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Smith to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom where he sought to end the civil war in Sudan and fought the religious prosecution of minorities in China, Egypt, India, and Pakistan. He retired in 2002.
Smith is the recipient of prestigious awards from the University of Washington, The American Bar Association, and the Washington State Bar Association. He continues to live in Seattle and more recently has been active with immigrant rights and Latino issues.
Judge Smith shared his memories of his redress movement activism in an interview conducted by Trevor Griffey on April , 2006. Video editing by Steven Beda. Work on this interview was made possible by a grant from 4Culture/King County Lodging Tax. In addition to his interview with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, Judge Smith also did a series of oral history interviews which can be viewed at Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.