Michigan Legal Milestones
31. Otis Milton Smith, Trailblazing Leadership
Otis Milton Smith—Mr. Smith (1922-1994) was an outstanding leader, lawyer, and dedicated public servant who overcame poverty and prejudice to serve in various prominent positions including chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission, justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, regent of the University of Michigan, and a vice president and general counsel of the General Motors Corporation. Dedicated June 21, 2006 at the University of Michigan-Flint.
Michigan Bar Journal
A Trailblazing Leader
Complete Text on Milestone Marker
Otis Milton Smith, Trailblazing Leadership
Otis Milton Smith was an outstanding lawyer and African-American trailblazer. Born in Tennessee in 1922, he overcame poverty and prejudice to reach positions of leadership in both the public and corporate spheres. An Army Air Corps journalist during World War II, he attended college and law school on the GI Bill, then settled in Flint in 1951 to practice law.
His acknowledged talents led to his appointment as chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission in 1956 and Michigan's auditor general in 1960—the first African American to serve in either post. In 1961, he broke another barrier when he was appointed the first African-American justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. His reputation for civility, courtesy, and integrity served the Court well. He joined the legal staff of General Motors in 1967 and later became its vice president and general counsel, another first for an African American.
Smith served in many community and professional leadership positions, including regent at the University of Michigan, trustee of the National Urban League, and member of the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners. He received numerous accolades before his death in 1994, including a State Bar Champion of Justice Award.
He adhered to the highest standards of ethical conduct and expected others to do so as well. Always a gentleman, he was the consummate lawyer and personified what he called the three Cs: character, competence, and commitment. A steadfast defender of social justice, he was an advocate for all people disenfranchised by class, ethnicity, geography, and physical disabilities.
Placed by the State Bar of Michigan, June 2006 with assistance from the Genesee County Bar Association, the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, and the University of Michigan–Flint.