News | Feb. 22, 2022

Black History Month Spotlight: DLA Chief of Staff Eric Smith

By Beth Reece

Eric Smith had just pinned on the Army’s second lieutenant rank when his dad offered a harsh appraisal. 

“You still haven’t made it yet, son. You can’t just pass your PT test, you can’t just pass the course,” he said. “That’s average, and average isn’t good enough for where you want to go.” 

Having grown up in the segregated south, Smith understood his dad’s frankness was his way of coaching him to overcome barriers that sometimes still blocked Black men from prosperity.  

The DLA chief of staff said he learned to be comfortable just being himself while climbing the rungs in a career that’s included 25 years as an ordnance officer followed by leadership roles at the departments of Energy and Homeland Security. He became a member of the Senior Executive Service in 2007, when he was selected to transform disaster logistics after Hurricane Katrina for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Learning from the past

Through most of his life, Smith has modeled his behavior after those he admired.

“I try to reflect on those who came before me and take a little bit of how they carried themselves and studied what they accomplished to shape myself personally and professionally,” he said. 

Buffalo soldiers who filled the ranks of six all-Black infantry and cavalry regiments working to bring order to Native American land in the west after the Civil War were among the first to inspire Smith as a young officer. 

“It was the buffalo soldiers who were out front paving the way for establishing the west despite their hardships. People are not aware or don’t always understand that,” he said.
 
Prominent figures like Jackie Robinson, the first Black man to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve as a Supreme Court justice, also influenced Smith as he strived toward success. 

“I looked at them for perspective on how they wound up being the first at what they accomplished,” he said.

Smith had a ritual of listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech every February during Black History Month long before the third Monday in January became a federal holiday honoring the civil rights movement activist in 1986. The months between King’s march in Birmingham, Alabama, to plea for racial equality and his famous speech in Washington, D.C., make up one of the most pivotal periods in Black history in Smith’s mind.

“It led to some long overdue changes. King got the attention of some very important and prominent folks, and that changed the narrative for African Americans,” he said, pointing to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Fair Housing Act of 1968 as landmark laws improving Black equality.

Growing up in Georgia

Smith experienced segregation firsthand until he turned 14 and Black and White schools in his native Columbus, Georgia, integrated. Though he was never physically attacked, he was aware enough to be cautious and afraid.

“I lived in a time when your parents had to have a conversation with you about what part of town not to go to, what the unwritten and invisible barriers were between neighborhoods, and what to do if the police started patrolling through your neighborhood,” he said.  

Today he laughs relaying one of his parent’s strict though contrary rules. 

“We were told, ‘If the police come through here, don’t run.’ But on the other hand, they told us ‘You better get your tail back in this yard as quick as you can.’ It’s just a funny thing I recount,” he said.

Integration didn’t initially settle the tension between Black and White people in Smith’s town – or the nation – but being an athlete shielded him from much of the strain. Playing sports helped him connect with others striving toward a common goal regardless of race. But the problems of his youth persist. 

“Congressman John Lewis reminded us that these are lifetime struggles,” he said. 

The former Georgia representative and civil rights icon led some 600 protesters over the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to plea for voting rights for Black people. Lewis was the first of many to be beaten by state troopers as they advanced toward the state capital. 

“What was it really like on that bridge?” Smith asked Lewis when he spotted him at the Dulles International Airport in 2016. 

“He was gracious enough to spend about 30 minutes with me just talking about whatever, and I did ask him about his experiences as an activist.”

Enduring inequality 

The enduring inequality that Lewis spoke of is one of the reasons Smith replays some of the same comments his dad made to him to his own sons. He cautions them not to stay out after midnight and has instructed them on how to behave – no sudden movements, hands always visible – if stopped by a police officer.

“My sons are in their 30s now, but I still worry about them and any of the challenges they may face,” he said. “And I tell them what my dad taught me, that you can’t settle for average; you’ve got to be a couple steps better to succeed.” 

DLA leaders have made conscious choices to include diversity and inclusion in its culture and strategic planning, the chief of staff continued. The previous director was Black, and according to agency statistics, the workforce is 40% minority. 

Events that highlight employees’ uniqueness impart lessons both good and bad that Smith believes everyone should use to grow as individuals in and outside the workplace. But learning and discussing aren’t enough for him. 

“Let’s work toward mutual and collective solutions to these issues that we talk about. Even though we elected a Black president and we have black senators, congressmen and Supreme Court justices, Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision doesn’t have an end state,” he said. “His dream is an enduring one that continues on for each of us.”