Washington Post  [Printer-friendly version]
May 7, 2006


The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, please make
contributions to the fund to help Damu's daughter:
Asha Moore Smith Trust
c/o The Praxis Project
1750 Columbia Road, NW -- 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20009

[Rachel's introduction: From Rachel's Democracy & Health News
#854 (May 11, 2006): Our friend and colleague Damu Smith died May 5,
2006 at age 54. A public celebration of Damu's life has been
scheduled for Saturday, May 20th at 5:00 p.m. at Plymouth
Congregational Church, 5301 North Capitol Street NE, Washington, D.C.]

By Darryl Fears

Damu Smith, an internationally known D.C. peace activist who advocated
for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the 1980s, fought chemical
pollution on the Louisiana Gulf Coast in the 1990s and campaigned
against the war in Iraq in the new century, died May 5 at George
Washington University Hospital after a year-long battle with colon
cancer. He was 54.

Mr. Smith was one of the city's preeminent civil rights activists, the
voice of a thriving local movement. He co-hosted the show "Spirit in
Action" on WPFW (89.3 FM), where his advocacy continued "right up to
the bitter end," said his partner on the show, Milagros A. Phillips.
"He was a freedom fighter. I mean tireless," said another friend, Dera
Tompkins. "You could not know Damu and not be politically active. He
demanded it."

Mr. Smith had many other friends, including Jesse L. Jackson Sr., with
whom he traveled, poet Sonia Sanchez and actor Harry Belafonte, who
presented him with a plaque last month for his community service.
LeRoy Wesley Smith was a native of St. Louis who came to the District
in 1973 to study at Antioch College. His older sister, Sylnice
Williams, said he was a curious child, drawn to science, and a natural
organizer who became active in school politics.

When Mr. Smith was 17, he took a field trip to Cairo, Ill., and
attended a black solidarity rally that showed him the power of
community service. Jackson, writer Amiri Baraka, singer Nina Simone
and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King's top lieutenant, spoke that day.
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Mr. Smith was drawn into two
causes: the fight for a national King holiday and the battle against
South African apartheid. He took the name Damu, which means "blood,
leadership and strength" in the Swahili language of Kenya.

In the 1990s, Mr. Smith joined Greenpeace USA, monitoring corporate
pollution on the Gulf Coast. He coordinated the first National People
of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, in 1991, helping to link the
civil rights movement to the environmental movement for the first
time, colleagues said.

As founder of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, Mr.
Smith arranged so-called "toxic tours" of an area in Louisiana known
as Cancer Alley. In 2001, he took author Alice Walker, poet Haki
Madhubuti and actor Mike Farrell on a tour of the region, where black
people experience a high level of cancer deaths.

Greenpeace released a statement saying that Mr. Smith's work led to a
confrontation with Shell Oil over its "chemical dumping practices and
forced the Shintech PVC Plant out of Norco, Louisiana." John
Passacantando, Greenpeace's executive director, said Mr. Smith's death
"is a monumental loss" for many groups and movements.

Mr. Smith was sometimes controversial. After the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr.
Smith cautioned Americans and the U.S. government against targeting
Arabs. At a forum, he reminded the audience that the former South
African president Nelson Mandela was once considered a terrorist and
that federal officials stood by as southern politicians and the Ku
Klux Klan terrorized black people during segregation. "As I recall,
there were no Arabs riding horses terrorizing black folks," he said.

Love him or not, said a friend, Kwesi Ron Harris, Mr. Smith "spoke
with maximum clarity. Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to
take notice. When he walked into a room, you knew something was coming
behind him, a rush of energy."

Said Phillips, the radio co-host: "He just had this passion for
fairness and justice and wanted all people to live in a world that was
compassionate." On the air, he would criticize Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "for
something they had done, and he would end by saying, 'But you know I
love you," " Phillips said.

Activist Ayo Handi Kendi said Mr. Smith was such a tireless activist
for others that he ignored his health. Last year in March, after
complaining of stomach problems off and on for years, he fell ill
while leading a delegation for Palestinian rights in the Middle East.
After his return to Washington, doctors told him that he was in the
end stage of colon cancer. He was given three months to live.

In interviews before his death, Mr. Smith said he wanted to see his
daughter, Asha Moore Smith, 13, grow to adulthood and that he wished
to broaden his relationship with Adeleke Foster, who became his
companion after his cancer diagnosis and assisted him until he died.
"He did fight," said Williams, his sister. "With God's help, he
fought. He lasted longer than they thought he would." In addition to
his daughter, from an earlier relationship, and sister, of St. Louis,
survivors include two brothers.

Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company