King Week keynote speaker Tavis Smiley used his 80-minute address
to a full house at Glenn Auditorium, Jan. 21, as a call for younger
generations of African Americans to activism.
It wouldn’t be easy, he admitted, since the post-civil rights
generations of black Americans are what he described as the “children
“We are here because of the struggle of others,” the
30-something Smiley told a large and energetic audience. Many were
students, but the greater community was represented as well, including
many people Smiley jokingly referred to as “chronologically
“We have a generation of new leaders who don’t know
what it means to be told ‘no.’” Smiley continued.
“We have unlimited access. The evidence of that is your black
behind is sitting here at Emory tonight.”
However, that access and the gains made by black Americans since
the 1960s, according to Smiley, is threatened by an administration
hostile to affirmative action and a foreign policy bent on creating
a war that will be disproportionately fought by minorities.
“Somebody’s got to say something,” Smiley said.
“That is the challenge of your generation.” He said
this is the first time black America has had leaders who do not
have firsthand knowledge of the struggles against segregation and
“Why you gotta represent?” asked Smiley, who earned
a debate scholarship to Indiana University and whose oratorical
skill was on display the entire evening. “Because you owe.
To put it very simply, you owe.” He repeated the phrase a
third time to let it sink in.
Author of six books, including the recently published Keeping
the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from
Black America, Smiley is one of the country’s foremost
young political voices, African American or otherwise. He hosts
“The Tavis Smiley Show from NPR,” and he is the first
African American to have his own show on the network. He also appears
twice weekly on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, heard locally on KISS
A total of 1,500 free tickets were available for the event. By noon
on the day of Smiley’s appearance, all of those tickets were
gone. More than a dozen campus organizations sponsored Smiley’s
Smiley had a touch of laryngitis, but that did nothing to hold him
back. Using no notes, Smiley was at times humorous, angry, annoyed
and hopeful. He quoted people ranging from Jesse Jackson to James
Brown to, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Smiley called King “the
greatest American we have ever produced.”
Rather than focus on the content of King’s words, Smiley said,
he wanted to address their context. “The context of our struggle
has not changed very much,” Smiley said, noting that the salaries
of black Americans are 60 percent of their white counterparts’
(the same as it was in the 1960s) and that no blacks serve in the
Smiley was critical of President George W. Bush, particularly the
timing of his coming out against a University of Michigan policy
that uses race as a factor for admission. Bush made his statement
on Jan. 15, King’s birthdate.
“You bastardize everything Kind stood for by deciding you
are publicly opposed to corrective programs like affirmative action,”
Smiley said. “What was the point of choosing [King’s]
birthday to say that? Then on the holiday, [Bush] shows up at a
“As mad as I am at Mr. Bush for trying to play us, I’m
more upset that this black church let him in,” said Smiley,
referring to the president’s Jan. 20 appearance at a predominantly
black church in Landover, Md., where he received a standing ovation.
“He wouldn’t have walked into Ebenezer [Baptist Church]
if Dr. King was at the pulpit.”
Smiley’s speech was most certainly politically charged, but
in the end, the main focus was about motivating people to do better.
“It’s not the failure that gets you, it’s the
low aim,” he said. “Life for [African Americans] is
like a heart monitor. It goes up and down. Just don’t let
it go flatline. Any of us can be great because all of us can serve.”