Damu Smith Biography
Took Over Administration Building, Moved onto National Stage
Human rights and environmental activist
Damu Smith is founder and co-chair of Black Voices for Peace (BVFP), an organization of peace activists galvanized in response to the September 11th attacks in the United States. BVFP has goals to eliminate war and injustice in the world through a coalition of community groups and others who seek social, human, and economic equality and a peaceful world. Smith is also executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), activists dedicated to fighting environmental and economic injustice brought about by governments and industry. NBEJN takes up causes like environmental pollution, redlining, and transportation and health issues. Smith has been an activist for over thirty years, traveling to over 1,000 cities and towns in 45 countries. The breadth of his work for these causes has created safer communities and better lives for millions around the world as he became a voice against racism, war, police brutality, apartheid, hunger, oppressive governmental policies, and industrial pollution.
Smith was born Leroy Wesley Smith on December 6, 1951, and raised in a St. Louis public housing complex called Carr Square Village. Smith remembered his neighborhood fondly. Neighbors knew and greeted each other, and watched out for each other's children in a spirit of community. Children played in relative safety and Smith remembers lots of good times among the two- and three-story buildings, which were first homes to many families who recently migrated from the South. "It had its share of crime in the early seventies because we did have some people who lived on the margins," Smith said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "I found myself in the middle of a couple of gun battles between factions during the heroin wars in St. Louis. So it had its share of very violent crime and I lost a lot of people I knew from high school."
Took Over Administration Building
Noting his penchant for aiding the cause of others, Smith feels he inherited this trait from his mother, Vernice Smith, as he watched her open her heart to the sick and the elderly. Vernice was a hard-working nurse who fed her five children and still gave to those in need. "She's my role model," Smith said. His father, Sylvester Smith, having gone to college and traveled during his boxing career and as a military policeman, supplied the intellectual influence. "She was the consistent force in my life," Smith recalled. "He talked of worldly things."
During high school Smith joined a college preparatory program run by Jesuit priests. Sophia House was a program for disadvantaged young black men that allowed Smith an opportunity to prepare for college and, at the same time, research the movement for black equality. It was 1969 and the height of the Black Power Movement. "We were learning about Malcolm X," said Smith. "We would listen to groups like the Last Poets and read Soul on Ice." Smith became politically active with these groups and made two visits to Cairo, Illinois, to assist the local Black United Fund, which was dealing with recent attacks by white supremacists. Several had taken place against blacks and shots were being fired into homes. "The visits to Cairo totally transformed my life," Smith told CBB. "I made my decision on the bus leaving there that I would commit my life to the movement of social justice and black rights. I knew I would use whatever I learned at college for the struggle of black equality and black liberation."
Smith graduated from Vashon High School in 1970 and entered St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was here that he started to become more organized in his activism, as head of the black student union—The Organization of Afro-American Students. Smith and the students sought changes on campus and did not waste any time. During his first semester he led a takeover of the administration building. The group was arrested and landed on the front page of major newspapers across the state. Smith was not deterred by the "climate of hostility" on campus nor the two days he spent in jail. "I did realize that my commitment could mean arrests and physical harm as it had for so many civil rights activists who came before me," he told CBB. Although his mother was at first shocked by her son's activities, Smith said she eventually understood the cause. "Her initial reaction was 'I didn't send you off to college to be like Angela Davis,'" Smith laughed. "She eventually evolved into my most supportive fan, embracing what I was doing in life. She was a sensitive, compassionate, and loving person. She was bound to come around. She just had never seen her son do anything like that before." As a result of the takeover, consciousness was raised on campus: the school created a black studies program, and the administration committed to hiring more black instructors.
To reflect his dedication to social activism, Smith started to refer to himself as Damu Amiri Imara Smith in college. The meaning of his name, as he explained it to a National Newspaper Publishers Association correspondent, was quoted by the Washington Times: "In Swahili, Damu means blood, as in 'the blood that I am willing to shed for the liberation of my people.' Amiri means leadership, as in 'the leadership I must provide in the service of my people.' Imara means strength, as in 'the strength and stamina I have to maintain the struggle.'" Since his college days, Smith has lived up to his name, as reflected in the accolades and appreciation others have bestowed upon him. "Damu is probably one of the most selfless people I have ever met. Damu wakes every morning, committed to curing the ills for the Black community in this country and around the world. He has dedicated the entire 53 years of his life to empowering Black people," FinalCall.com White House correspondent Askia Muhammad quoted Smith's colleague Joia Jefferson as saying.
Moved onto National Stage
From 1974-76 Smith worked as an intern for Congressman Augustus Hawkins of California, but Smith's first real job out of college was with the Commission for Racial Justice at the United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. As an associate in 1976, he worked on issues of government injustice, gun violence, and police brutality, along with the effort to free the Wilmington Ten, a group of activists convicted of criminal charges surrounding a North Carolina school boycott. He next worked with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Washington, D. C. from 1980-83. AFSC was founded by a group of Quakers in 1917 to work on social and peace programs around the world. They addressed matters relating to poverty, domestic budget issues, and public housing. Smith learned to maneuver on Capitol Hill and became part of several coalitions working on various domestic and foreign policy issues. "At that time I really learned Washington as a national congressional lobby town," Smith said. "It was exciting. I met people like Ron Brown, who was with the National Urban League at the time, and so many others that I learned from."
In 1984 Smith left to work on the first Jesse Jackson presidential campaign coordinating celebrity support activities and interacting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. About this extraordinary opportunity to work with key players in national black politics Smith said, "I was sitting at the feet of these people, watching and learning." For the next two decades Smith took what he learned to work for other organizations like Greenpeace USA as its national associate director and the National Black Independent Political Party, spreading his message and founding BVFP and NBEJN.
Smith said the way he views his work has changed as he has "developed and evolved as a human being. I used to see my work as political; now I see it as a spiritual vocation," Smith told CBB. "It is work that envelopes a moral ethics of love that says that we were not put into this world to suffer and be oppressed. We were put here to enjoy what God has created for us. We've been given a great bounty of treasure—natural resources. It is our responsibility to not allow anyone to do harm or not share those resources equitably. Strong economic entities are trying to snatch away the resources of the world and deny others the rights to those resources. That's the problem we have in the world."
"Activist's 'Army of Angels' Battles for His Health," Washington Times, http://washingtontimes.com/metro/20050705-120536-3021r.htm (August 31, 2005).
"Activists Hold Die-In Opposing War on Iraq," DC Indymedia, http://dc.indymedia.org/newswire/display_printable/55285/index.php (June 10, 2005).
"Community Activist Damu Smith Is Fighting for His Life," Black Press USA, www.blackpressusa.com/News/Article_Search.asp?NewsID=4046 (August 31, 2005).
Damu Smith, www.damusmith.org (August 31, 2005).
"Damu Smith to Address Environmental Racism at Congressional Black Caucus," GreenPeace, www.greenpeace.org/usa/press/releases/damu-smith-to-address-environm (June 10, 2005).
"Peace, Environmental Activist Fights for His Life," FinalCall, www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/article_2063.shtml (August 31, 2005).
"Voices for Peace: The First Every Church a Peace Church Conference," Cathedral of Hope, www.cathedralofhope.com/orders/peace.php (June 10, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Damu Smith on June 11, 2005, and through materials supplied by Mr. Smith.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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