When Damu Smith throws a party, he does it with a sense of purpose. Hundreds of Third World people pay an average of $3.50 to enter his doors, then they dance till dawn, munch on spicy foods (which they buy), and listen to deejays delivering messages about the party's purpose.
By the time the last dance has ended, the party has raised thousands of dollars for some cause. This year the causes ranged from paying for a local woman's medical operation to raising money for the "Free South Africa Movement."
Organizations call Smith when they need help, or he hears of a cause he deems worthy of his efforts. When that time comes, he and a group of friends dial hundreds of phone numbers and lick hundreds of stamps to get the word out.
Generally, he asks the needy organization to help sponsor the party. They pick up the small tab for mailing expenses, and he uses his mailing lists, organizing techniques and ability to draw people who know and believe in him. All of the money raised goes to the cause.
"His parties are always something more than social events," said Dera Thompkins, a medical librarian and one of Smith's good friends and fellow organizers.
"These are social and cultural gatherings that I've used as forums for communication and education around progressive issues . . . ," said Smith, who estimates that the parties have raised between $8,000 and $10,000 for various groups over a year and a half. "We have shown a Paul Robeson movie, a Sengalese movie, Jesse Jackson's speech at the National Democratic Convention."
About 300 people partied until daylight at the fund raiser for the Southern Africa Support Project that he held in his French Street NW town house last winter. In between reggae and rhythm and blues tunes, the deejay dished out one-liners urging partygoers to join the antiapartheid demonstrations at the South African Embassy. By the time the last dance ended, $1,200 had been raised.
Smith is relentless in his efforts to bring about change, efforts that started more than 17 years ago. In a way, it was bullet holes that pushed him into marching, lobbying and organizing.
The bullet holes were "in the houses of blacks, holes put there by the Klan," he recalled. He was an impressionable 16-year-old high school student on a field trip to Cairo, Ill., and all he could do was stare at those holes.
"It was the turning point, when I made a lifelong commitment to being involved in what I call 'the freedom movement,' " said Smith, 33, legislative director for the Washington Office On Africa. "I knew then I had to go beyond reading books and rhetoric."
At that time he was part of Sophia House, what he described as "a Jesuit sponsored after-school tutorial program for the quote, unquote disadvantaged black male youth. It was in 1969, the heart of the black power movement," he explained. "Those of us who attended the program turned it into . . . a center for black consciousness raising."
He came to Washington in 1974, leaving his native St. Louis on a Greyhound bus, carrying $100, the address of friends, a head full of ideas and a heart full of commitment.
"Money and material things were never a big concern to me, personally," offered Smith, who said that his only concern was to send money back home to his mother, a divorcee who raised five children.
But he wanted to be at the center of political power, the city where thousands of people come each year to publicly demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government.
He enrolled at Antioch Law School, but never graduated. Before coming to Washington, he had attended a couple of colleges, always leading on-campus protests against the Vietnam War and reaching out to the surrounding neighborhoods before deciding to go off and study on his own.
"Education was never an issue for me," he explained. "I was getting practical experience."
In Washington, he jumped into the fight for home rule. Eventually, there were other activities: a grass-roots crusade to mobilize people for the 20th Anniversary March on Washington; serving as associate director of the local office of the American Friends Service Committee, and being national coordinator of the April Actions coalition, a band of organizations that demonstrated in the capital last April, opposing nuclear arms buildup, domestic budget cuts, apartheid and U.S. involvement in Central America.
He has compiled what he calls "an extensive mailing list of cultural and political types." Most of the people on the list are black adults 25 to 40 years old, some who used to march in the '60s and some who are marching. They are a mixture of artists, activists and entrepreneurs, all willing to support with energy or money the causes in which Smith is interested.
"I think Damu has shown us that political struggle . . . does not have to be painful all the time," said Sylvia Hill, cochair of the Southern Africa Support Project. "While the political party is not a solution, it is one form of trying to provide people with an alternate way to get righteous information."
Ultimately, Smith wants to start an organization in the District "that really represents the majority population -- the black and the poor communities in the city. An organization that would empower the black community to create real home rule . . . . "
"Damu is an inspiration," said Thompkins. "Every time I want to give up, he's there. He's like someone left over from the '60s, but while a lot of people dropped along the wayside, he has never given up. His energy is endless.