January 27, 2003

King Week keynote calls for youthful activism

By Eric Rangus erangus@emory.edu

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 of privilege.”

“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 gifted folk.”

“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 slavery.

“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 104.1 FM.

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 appearance.

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 U.S. Senate.

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 black church.

“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.”






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