Damu Smith, an internationally known 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, has died. He was 54.
Smith died Friday at George Washington University Hospital in Washington after a yearlong battle with colon cancer.
Shortly after arriving in the nation’s capital in 1973, 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, Smith joined Greenpeace USA, monitoring 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, Smith arranged “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 African Americans experienced a high level of cancer deaths.
Greenpeace released a statement saying that Smith’s work led to a confrontation with Shell Oil over its “chemical dumping practices,” forcing a plant to leave Norco, La.
John Passacantando, Greenpeace’s executive director, said Smith’s death “is a monumental loss” for many groups and movements.
Smith was one of Washington’s preeminent civil rights activists, the voice of a thriving local movement. He was co-host of “Spirit in Action” on the Washington-based radio station WPFW, 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.”
Smith had many other friends, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 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 Washington to study at Antioch College. He was a curious child, drawn to science, and a natural organizer who became active in school politics.
When Smith was 17, he took a field trip to Cairo, Ill., and attended a black solidarity rally that helped him recognize the power of community service. Jackson, writer Amiri Baraka, singer Nina Simone and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s top lieutenant, spoke that day.
In March 2005, after complaining of stomach problems off and on for years, Smith fell ill while leading a delegation for Palestinian rights in the Middle East.
After his return to Washington, doctors told him he had colon cancer and three months to live.
Smith is survived by his companion, Adeleke Foster; a daughter from a previous relationship, Asha Moore Smith, 13; a sister; and two brothers.