Milwaukee Courier












Official Site
Official Site of the NNPA
Site Sponsored by UPS
Co-Sponsored by AT&T
Built By
Built By the NNPA Foundation and XIGroup
Built By the NNPA Foundation and XIGroup Advice To Visit
Community Activist Damu Smith is Fighting for his Life
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 4/19/2005

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Anti-war and community activist Damu Smith is receiving phone calls and e-mails by the hundreds. Funds are being raised and plans are being made. As usual, Smith is focused and strategizing for battle.

But the battle this time is not another peace march in the Middle East. It’s not another vigil for environmental justice in Black and poor communities. It’s not another campus rally for racial sensitivity. Nor is it any of the other causes Smith has championed for more than three decades.

Damu Smith has been diagnosed with colon cancer. And in this campaign, he is fighting for his life. When a physician at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C. told him he had cancer, Smith almost reflexively went into his normal battle mode.

“My whole life just rolled like a video in front of me,” he recalls. After about 20 minutes, Smith had a firm talk with himself. He asked himself, “Okay. What are you going to do?” And he began answering his own question. “I just started thinking, ‘I’ve got to live. I’ve got to live. I’ve got to live. I’ve got to live.’ The shock began to ease as I started going into the next phase of my thought process. And I said, ‘I’ve got to fight back. I’ve just got to fight back with whatever I have to deal with this.’ That’s all I could think about was fighting.”

That’s what he does best.

For Smith, 53, the fight started a long time ago. At the age of 17, he was inspired by poet Amiri Baraka during a high school field trip to Cairo, Ill., a racially-tense town for years. It was then that Smith decided he wanted to become an activist.

He was on such a mission when he fell ill. Smith was a member of a U. S. delegation to Palestine preparing to lead a Palm Sunday march there when he fainted while resting against a car. He went into a seizure.

“A White woman from Alabama revived me, Palestinian doctors and nurses took care of me,” he says. Mary Wade, a White nurse practitioner from Birmingham, Ala., another member of the American delegation, helped care for him until he was rushed in an ambulance to a Bethlehem hospital.

“They never used the c-word. I found out later that was kind of an orchestrated thing. People didn’t want me to know exactly what they were seeing. They just wanted me to get on the plane and to get me to a hospital as soon as possible,” he recalls.

The march went on without him.

“All of the delegation came over to see me after the march,” he says. He was a part of the delegation as president of Black Voices for Peace, an anti-war organization he founded five years ago. Though feeling weak and sickly, during the trip, he says he came away with some strong conclusions about the way Palestinians are being mistreated by the Israelis.

“The Jews have built illegal settlements inside of the occupied territories. So, in order to protect the Jewish settlers, there is a sophisticated security apparatus that includes check-points. When Palestinians come to these check-points, they have to wait in long lines. They have to be searched. They’re cursed at. They are looked down upon by these young soldiers, some of whom are 18 and 19 years old, exerting power over them. They are delayed in getting places sometimes two and three hours,” he says. “The entire population has been criminalized. When I was on my way to the airport to leave the country, we were delayed 30 minutes, searching the car, all of this because the driver was a Palestinian who comes there every day.”

It was Wednesday, March 23, when Smith left Palestine for the U. S., three days beyond his planned departure date. “We arrived back at 8 o’clock in the morning. I was checking in to Providence at 4 p.m.”

There, a physician broke the news.

“When I was at the emergency room in the triage in Providence Hospital, he looked at the X-rays from Palestine and said, ‘Damu, you have cancer – colorectal cancer.’ Oooh, it hit me like a ton of bricks in my belly. And I just sat there motionless for several minutes. I was in a state of shock, semi-shock because I kind of knew that I was going to hear that.”

His father, Sylvester Smith, died of colon cancer in 1989 at the age of 53, the same age Damu is now.

“I sat on my bed for several minutes just shaking my head and saying, ‘Oh, no, no.’ I started getting mad at myself because I probably ignored too many of the warning signs. So, I started beating up on myself for a few minutes with a combination of anger, shock, fear, all traveling through my psyche simultaneously,” he recounts during an interview in his D. C. apartment.

Smith has a 12 year-old-daughter, Asha, whom he calls “the crown jewel” of his life. Though she lives with her mother, Smith has joint custody and single-mindedness when it comes to her future.

“Everything that went through my mind were thoughts about her, the possibility of leaving her early, the thoughts of her not having me around, her feeling sad, her being hurt. She was essential to my thought process at that moment,” Smith remembers.

A surgeon told him that people with his progression of the disease usually have three to six months to live. He says, “That was the second ton of bricks.”

But friends would not let the St. Louis native remain buried under the bricks.

“There’s so much love coming at me right now from so many different sources,” he states. “I’ve gotten calls from people that I haven’t gotten calls from in a long time – friends and family members, prominent individuals. That army has been something.”

A network of what he calls “angels” are coordinating fund-raising and care for Smith.

Joia Jefferson, who has helped to coordinate and publicize his protests and other events for more than 20 years, is among the coordinators of fund-raising events to be announced around the country to help with his medical and personal expenses. The goal is to raise at least $150,000.

The e-mail address for more information is Cards, letters and donations may be sent to The Praxis Project 1750 Columbia Rd., NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. Online donations may also be made at

Smith has not had healthcare insurance since he served for 10 years as a toxics campaigner and national associate director of Greenpeace USA.

He left Greenpeace about four years ago to establish the National Black Environmental Justice Network, which fights against contaminated water and toxic waste dumps in Black neighborhoods.

“Right now, he’s going to need all his energy in order to fight this illness. What we want to do is those who support him and love him and have been benefiting from his work for his whole life, we want to take a moment here to honor the work that he’s done,” Jefferson says. “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. Damu today stands as somebody who I know has aided our lives. And now we have to stand and aid him. We want to honor what he’s done and also make him comfortable enough that all he has to do now is get well.”

And that’s not easy.

He frowns as he drinks a bitter mixture of natural dietary supplements at the dining table in his apartment.

Friends have told him the natural supplements are often better than pharmaceutical medications. Christian praise music plays in the background as he awaits a food delivery from a friend. After delaying surgery for more than a week until he could receive opinions from other medical experts, Smith underwent surgery last week. And it will be weeks, if not months, before he can return to full battle.

Nearly everything about the determined Smith denotes war – even his name.

Born Leroy Wesley Smith, he changed his name to Damu Amiri Imara Smith during his years at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. He explained during in a 2003 interview with the NNPA News Service that in Swahili, Damu means blood. He explained, “The blood that I am willing to shed for the liberation of my people.” Amiri, he said, 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.”

He has relied on that stamina to focus on his future.

“I did not stay in a moment of, ‘Oh, poor Damu. Oh, I might die soon,’” he says. “I’m going to fight. I have to.”

Back to Previous Page Click here to send this story to a friend.  Email This Story to a Friend

Click here for an
Advanced Search

Contact Us:  Click here to send us an Email.