Friday, May 05, 2006

Damu Smith, 1952-2006


Damu Smith, the founder of Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, died May 5 of colon cancer in Washington, DC. He was 54.

Smith's website tells the story of his activist life. Radicalized while still a high school student by observing the Black liberation struggle in Cairo, Illinois, he assumed the name "Damu" ("blood" in Swahili) and moved to Washington where he worked in the anti-apartheid movement, against legal injustices in the U.S., and for peace and a freeze on nuclear weapons.

When Smith was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, he became determined to encourage others to get frequent colon cancer tests. "I'm going to be the poster child for twice-a-year screenings." African Americans experience an earlier onset of the disease and higher incidence and mortality rates than whites.

I only met Smith once, at a conference in 2000 where I took the picture above.

But like Smith, in the early 1970s, I saw the segregated Pyramid Courts housing project in Cairo -- marveled at the bullet holes that dotted walls and roofs there and in St. Columba's Catholic Church where the Black United Front held its meetings. When I reported from Cairo in April 1973, I wrote "there is not much of a pie to win a piece of in Cairo, and those who own what there is struggle fiercely to keep from giving it up." Three Blacks had been killed in the simmering local struggle for equality; 25 Black businesses, 43 homes and 25 cars had been torched. Cairo's story destroys any comfortable illusion that Black civil rights were won without blood and anguish.

The town, located where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, has apparently never recovered from those dreadful times. According to a contemporary website created by Joe Angert, a St. Louis Community College professor:

Cairo, Illinois is the strangest city on the river. It feels like you are visiting a motion picture set from the 1950s and all the actors, save a few strays, have cleared the streets to hide from some impending doom. ...

It really feels abandoned. The population is roughly 3000, which on face value seems like a healthy number, but the city was built to sustain a population five times larger. The buildings are still there, large stone banks, churches, and government buildings; grand in design, but with their promise unfulfilled. They look sad standing there abandoned....

Rather than hire blacks the white store owners one after another just closed shop and left. Cairo is the city that died from racism.

Damu Smith lived a life creatively devoted stopping the dying and increasing freedom for all peoples. Such lives are to be celebrated and emulated if we dare.

2 comments:

Matt said...

Jan,

Could you please e-mail me at emetbloom at hotmail dot com? I'd appreciate it.

Thanks,
Matt
Say No to Pombo

sokari said...

Great blog - i will post on Damu Smith - he seems like the kind of person we need more of in this life.

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