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Activist, Radio Show Host Damu Smith

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

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.


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