The Life of Damu Smith
is a testimony of consistency and commitment to social justice...
Damu Smith was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri
to Sylvester and Vernice Smith. Together with his three brothers and sister, the family lived in the Carr Square Village
housing project until Damu was seventeen. In the book Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s
Chemical Corridor, Smith told author Steve Lerner: "I grew up in a working-class, lower-income family. My father
was a fireman and an air pollution inspector and my mother was a licensed practical nurse. So I was born of working-class
parents. My mother and father went through a lot of difficulties at times…and sometimes it resulted in us going
on welfare… I mention this because much of what I am today has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in not wretchedly
poor surroundings, but we struggled. I know what it is to go to school without heat at home and study by candlelight
and not have enough money to get adequate clothes… I grew up under food stamps and welfare and government handout cheese
and milk and meat and all that… So I have great sensitivity to the plight of poor people."
As a high school student, Smith attended a Jesuit-run,
after-school program for “disadvantaged male youth”. As part of that program he went on a field trip to
Cairo, Illinois to Black Solidarity Day rallies where Damu listened to speeches by Amiri Baraka, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Julian
Bond, Nina Simone and Jesse Jackson, and he toured Black neighborhoods where white supremacists had sprayed houses with gunfire.
Damu recalls, “Seeing those bullet holes…that changed my life.” As a freshman student at St. John’s
University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and president of the Organization of Afro-American Students, Smith led a protest and
takeover of the school’s administrative offices demanding a Black studies program. It was while at St. John’s
that Smith changed his name to Damu Amiri Imara Smith. In Swahili, Damu means blood. As he
has stated, “The blood that I am willing to shed for the liberation of my people.” Amiri means leadership:
“The leadership I must provide in the service of my people.” And Imara means strength: “The strength
and stamina I have to maintain in the struggle.” In 1973, Smith moved to Washington, DC to attend Antioch
College’s Center for the Study of Basic Human Problems, and to be “close to the action.” And as they say,
the rest is history.
Extending over more than thirty years, his activism
has included vigilance in the fight against apartheid in South Africa as Executive Director of the Washington Office on Africa
and co-founder of Artists for a Free South Africa. Damu has worked to expose gun violence, police brutality and government
injustice through his work with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, the National Alliance Against Racist
and Political Repression, the National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee, and the National Black Independent Political Party.
He has worked to effect peace and a freeze on nuclear weapons as Associate Director of the Washington Office of the American
Friends Service Committee, and advocated for environmental justice as National Associate Director and national toxics campaigner
for Greenpeace USA.
Smith became the first coordinator for environmental
justice for the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, and in that capacity visited forty towns and
cities in nine states in 1991 and 1992 experiencing first hand how chemical dumping and other environmentally toxic corporate
practices impact the health and lives of poor and African American communities. He also organized Toxic Tours in the
South for Greenpeace, taking celebrities such as Alice Walker, Haki Madhubuti and others to an area in Louisiana called “Cancer
Alley” because of its toxicity. Damu was instrumental in helping grass roots organizations confront Shell Oil
about its dumping practices and to force a PVC plant out of Norco, Louisiana, a campaign that has been dramatized in a Lifetime
cable channel movie. In 1999, in a move that changed the face of the environmental movement, Smith coordinated the largest
environmental justice conference ever held, the historic National Emergency Gathering of Black Community Advocates for Environmental
and Economic Justice. This gathering led to the formation of the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN),
the first ever national network of Black environmental justice activists, of which he is currently executive director.
Damu is also the founder of Black Voices for Peace,
a group dedicated to mobilizing the Black community in concert with people of goodwill of all races and nationalities to protest
US military aggression in Iraq and elsewhere around the world, and to lobby for redirecting the billions of dollars the Bush
administration is spending on global U.S. military operations and support of the Israeli government’s occupation of
Palestinian land to funding for universal healthcare and access, for education, jobs, housing, environmental protection, equal
justice, reparations and other critical human needs.
While participating in a Palm Sunday peace march
this year in Palestine, Damu fainted and had a seizure. Tests completed in the Palestine Authority and in US hospitals
have confirmed the presence of stage four cancer of the colon, which has spread to his liver. Throughout his life, Damu
has been victorious in many, many struggles for human rights and justice. And he will be triumphant in this, his latest
battle against cancer. With the love of his twelve year old daughter, Asha, the support of family and friends all over
the world and all of you and faith in God, Damu says he is confident that, “I can overcome this… I am overwhelmed
by the love."