Tavis Smiley: Black America Deserves An Agenda With The President

Author and media personality Tavis Smiley found himself at odds with several black leaders after he said there needs to be a more national focus on a black agenda, even though the U.S. has its first black president. Black leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton are among those in disagreement about Smiley's approach. Host Michel Martin speaks with him about his thoughts on politics and the black community and a conference being planned to discuss the needs and progress of African-Americans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, for decades, states and local governments have been free to create their own educational standards. But now a new effort to set standards nationwide seems to be gaining acceptance. We talk to two education activists who have been involved in the process.

But first, Tavis Smiley. Now, thats a name you know from right here on public radio, where he hosts a weekly program, or his television program, also found on public broadcasting or his books - those hes authored himself or published through his imprint or his State of the Black Union gatherings that he hosted for a decade, where he gathered African-American thought leaders to talk about the issues of the day.

Now, earlier this year, he announced that he would stop hosting those gatherings because hes on to other projects. But he recently decided to bring together a group of African-American activists and intellectuals next weekend, March 20th, because, he says, there needs to be more of a national focus on a black agenda, even though this country is now led by a black president.

But some black leaders are taking issue with Taviss approach, and the dust up has gotten rather heated and its playing out on the airwaves. Recently, on Reverend Al Sharptons radio program, he and Tavis Smiley got into a heated debate over whether President Obama has a responsibility to set a national agenda specifically for African-Americans.

Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Host, The Tavis Smiley Show): When black leaders start saying to black people and the black media that we dont need to have this president focus on an African-American agenda, given that black folk are getting crushed, I say that we need to come together to have a conversation about what that means. I think theres a disconnect between those kinds of quotes and black people. I made no...

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist, Baptist Minister): I think theres a disconnect between - I think theres a disconnect between what youre saying and what was said. First of all, we never said that, and second of all, the New York Times never said we said that. And if you, wait a minute - wait a minute. I didnt interrupt you. And if you thought wed said that, you shouldve picked up the phone and called and asked us. When people were beating you down last year for your opposition for President Obama, I came to your forum and defended you.

MARTIN: So we called Tavis Smiley to tell us more about what he has in mind and hes with us now. Thank you for joining us. Welcome or welcome back, I should say.

Mr. SMILEY: Im glad to be back, and I am here indeed to answer whatever you want to ask.

MARTIN: Well, let me give people a sense of whats been happening here. You called the Tom Joyner Morning Show last month - you were a longtime contributor there, offering commentaries, to announce plans for this meeting.

Mr. SMILEY: Over the past few weeks, a chorus of black leaders has started singing a new song. I must have missed that choir of (unintelligible) because I dont know the words to this new hymn. The president doesnt need a black agenda, they sing. Hes not the president of black America, hes the president of all America, and he need not focus specifically on the unique challenges black America is facing, they sing. As you probably deduced by now, Im having some trouble learning my part.

MARTIN: Now, what is it exactly that youre talking about? I assume youre referring to a meeting that Reverend Al Sharpton, Marc Morial and Ben Jealous have had with the president toward the end of February. But what exactly are you concerned about that you feel needs to be addressed?

Mr. SMILEY: Its not just that meeting, but around the time of that meeting, prior to that meeting, even after that meeting, there are any number of African-American leaders who started saying to the national news media that this president need not focus uniquely on the challenges that black America is facing. Now, everybody knows that most Americans are being challenged by this economy but the numbers are clear. Black folk are getting crushed in education, in the economy, in the housing market, the banking industry, et cetera, et cetera.

So for black leaders, whose job it is to represent the best interest of black people, to start saying publicly that the president need not focus specifically or uniquely on the concerns of black folk, that was unsettling for me and I think something that black folk need to talk about.

MARTIN: And your specific critic of these leaders did cause some - how can we put it, some heat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Ill just play a short clip. This was particularly between you and Reverend Al Sharpton, and you made your comments on Tom Joyners program, then Reverend Sharpton called back into the program to offer his take on this and then you called his program and this - were going to play a short clip from that.

Rev. SHARPTON: Is that Tavis Smiley?

Mr. SMILEY: Reverend Al, how are you, sir?

Rev. SHARPTON: I was fine until you started messing with me this morning. Whats wrong with you?

Mr. SMILEY: Got - nothings wrong with me and Im not messing with you or Brother Ogletree.

MARTIN: Why do you think hes so angry?

Mr. SMILEY: I think its difficult to be the water carrier for the White House and at the same time trying to be the titular head, as it were, of black America. Its a very difficult thing to do. Reverend Sharpton, as we know, and this has been reported everywhere, is advising the president on education issues. We all recall the meeting the president had in the Oval Office with Newt Gingrich, Mike Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, and Reverend Al, about education. So, in some sense, Reverend Sharpton is inside the White House trying to help the president push his agenda out.

MARTIN: Did you mean to use the word water carrier specifically to be provocative or do you...

Mr. SMILEY: No, no. Not - I dont mean, again, Im not trying to be provocative nor am I trying to be dismissive or cast aspersion. Im trying to make the point that when youre in meetings with the president in the White House talking about education, and you have the presidents blessings to push this agenda out about the importance of education, which we all agree about, I think, thats one thing and thats a beautiful thing. But on the other hand, when you have to go to that same president and push back on him about a lack of a specific agenda for black people who are catching hell, theres tension there. Those are two very difficult hats, I think, to wear.

MARTIN: And, of course, you know that Reverend Sharpton suggested to you directly, so Im not telling you anything you dont know, that this results from your quote unquote buck dancing for the Clintons. His suggestion was that you were politically close to...

Mr. SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Hillary and former President Bill Clinton and that this was the source of your critique. And if you would just respond to that.

Mr. SMILEY: Those kinds of personal ad hominem attacks, I think, have no place in this dialogue. Ive never attacked Reverend Sharpton, never called him names and will not now, number one. But number two, I have published 14 books, two of which lay out in detail my commentaries on Tom Joyner over those 12 years. And theres a box set of my commentaries on Tom Joyner. I say that because my stuff is readily available and when people dig into my stuff, they will find that when Bill Clinton was president, I held him accountable on a number of issues, including a racist crime bill that made legal this 100-to-one crack to powder cocaine discrepancy.

I went after him when he signed the Welfare Reform Bill. And I went after Bill Clinton most damning when he sat too long going into Rwanda, where ethnic cleansing was happening between the Hutus and the Tutsis. My record is very clear about holding Bill Clinton, and every other leader for that matter, accountable since Ive been on radio and television to the best interest of black people.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Tavis Smiley. Were talking about his upcoming meeting that hes hosting in Chicago on March 20th, where he wants to talk about issues of particular concern to African-Americans. And hes saying that there needs to be more of a specific black-focused agenda.

Now, part of your argument is that African-Americans forgo their moral authority to criticize future presidents if they fail to criticize this one. Part of the argument by these other persons, including Reverend Sharpton, is that tactically its not helpful for you to single out and demand a specific black-focused agenda from this African-American president. That all it does is evoke a backlash, and its ultimately not productive. What do you say to that?

Mr. SMILEY: Im not na�ve here. I have worked for politicians. I have run for public office. Im - in law and public policy in college. I know how this process works. Nobody is expecting this president or any other president, for that matter, to stand up on the top of the White House and start yelling out some black agenda to the masses. Thats not what were asking for.

What we are asking for is a unique focus on the specific challenges that are crushing black America. The reason why Dont Ask Dont Tell is being addressed right now is because gays and lesbians correctly and courageously pushed the president on that issue. So the point is that the people who are heard are the people who get addressed.

MARTIN: I understand what youre saying, Tavis, but I think that they would argue that the specific concerns around Dont Ask, Dont Tell are unique to their condition as same-gender loving individuals. But the same cannot be said for addressing the economy that the effects maybe felt more keenly in the African-American community, but its being felt across the border. For example, men are being affected more profoundly by this recession than women are. Latinos have been affected profoundly and so their argument is addressing the situation broadly really does address the particulars. Why are they wrong?

Mr. SMILEY: They are wrong because the black agenda has always been about the best of the American agenda. The black agenda has always been about democracy. There is a reason why Dr. King has a holiday named after him because his agenda was not just good for black folk, it was good for all of America.

Quick example, look at the curbside cut-ins that those who are disabled or handicapped fought for for years. Curbside cut-ins are everywhere, at hotels, at restaurants, at airports. We all use those curbside cut-ins at various times in our lives, for rolling luggage in it and baby carts, etcetera, etcetera. They werent designed for you. But everybody benefits as a result of that and the same is true of the black agenda. Its not reductionist, its not pejorative, its not punitive, its not exclusive. When you make black America better, you make all of America.

MARTIN: But even if that is substantively true, the argument is - that some of these leaders are making is that it is not politically feasible for the president to express it that way and if the ultimate agenda is to...

Mr. SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...win, then the optics, if you want to use a fashionable word, have to be right on this. One example they would cite is that when the president spoke out strongly about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., he received a very negative response because people felt he was special pleading or taking sides, for example, in a racial argument, and that there was a demonstrable public opinion effect on that. So, thats the argument that they would cite by where singling out African Americans for special focus by this president is not politically feasible or helpful. How would you respond to that?

Mr. SMILEY: There is a distinction between winning and doing what is right. The problem is that when politicians poll-test everything. When everything is a media calculation, then you get to a point where you have this kind of tension that exists between the policies and whats ultimately best for the people.

MARTIN: Okay. But politics is the means by which government happens.

Mr. SMILEY: That doesnt mean that the concerns of everyday people ought not to be addressed. So that we get an administration that focuses almost exclusively on Wall Street, but everyday-people are still allowed to suffer. So, now we have this new populist agenda of focusing on the least of these. Im glad that were finally there now, but perhaps thats what we should have started.

MARTIN: Tavis, I do take your point that ad hominem attacks really should not have a place in civil discourse when matters of substance are being discussed, but I do feel compelled to ask you because this is an issue that has surfaced on the blogosphere and among respectable people who do appreciate you...

Mr. SMILEY: True.

MARTIN: ...they argue that this is in part an ego contest. That this is in part about your seeking relevance in leadership in an age when the president is the leading African-American figure in the country, and that this has caused a bit of an existentialist crisis, if you want to call that...

Mr. SMILEY: Hmm.

MARTIN: ...among the people who are used to speaking for the black community, and they have to find a new place in that hierarchy. If you would respond to that, Id appreciate it.

Mr. SMILEY: Well, the short answer is its a bunch of silliness. My mission is to do my small part to make the world safe for the legacy of Dr. King. That means justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates. When you step forward, you have to know that youre going to be challenged, sometimes with merit, sometimes without merit. But this has never been about my ego. I have a job. As you at the top of this conversation, it took you five minutes to get through my resume. But I dont think people are thinking straight if they believe that I wake up in the morning, trying to figure out ways to be provocative, to make Negros hate me - I mean, we all want to be loved, appreciated, and respected. And this is not a career move, this is not endearing me to people. This is causing people - of course, not everybody, but some people - to take exception to what you have to say. So, anyone who argue that this is about ego, I think thats theyre totally missing the point here.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, well continue this conversation with Tavis Smiley. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Im Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will talk about recovery efforts in Chile and Haiti in the wake of earthquakes that changed the landscape of both of those countries.

But first were going to continue our conversation with Tavis Smiley, host of The Tavis Smiley Show on PBS. Tavis will host a gathering of African-American advocates and intellectuals next weekend to persuade President Obama to forge a black agenda within domestic policy.

So, tell me a little bit more about what people can expect from this conference. This is open to the public...

Mr. SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...as your State of the Black Union conferences were. Whos invited and what do you hope to accomplish?

Mr. SMILEY: We are going to talk about very simply what the need is if there is a need, in fact - for a black agenda in the era of Obama in a so-called post-racial America. Does it make sense? If it does make sense how do we do it? What role do black leaders play in that? What kind of agency do black people have in that? The conversation will include Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson and Julianne Malveaux and Ron Walters and Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, Angela Glover Blackwell, and others - should be a spirited dialogue in Chicago.

MARTIN: Well, are you prepared to hear from people who might be willing to argue that the answer is no?

Mr. SMILEY: Of course. There maybe some people on the panel who feel that way, number one. And number two, at the end of this conversation we have a full hour, unlike we have done in the past, of questions and comments from the audience. So, the people are going to get a chance to be heard.

We're doing this live on USTREAM. So, there will be bloggers all across the country sounding off on this while the conversation is happening. Im not trying to shut down discourse. Im trying to ratchet up discourse about how we get an agenda that focuses on delivering for the most loyal base of the presidents constituency.

MARTIN: And finally, does this make you think again about your decision to end your annual State of the Union conferences. Obviously, you have as you mentioned a lot of things going on and lot of different...

Mr. SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...projects and you have, you know, good faith reasons for saying that this is no longer how you wanted to...

Mr. SMILEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...handle these kinds of conversations. Does it make you to rethink that?

Mr. SMILEY: Not particularly. You know, Im working on, you know, prime time specials for PBS. I have a special on March 31st. It focuses specifically -speaking of pushback - on the pushback that Dr. King got from white folk and black folk and black leaders when he stood out at the Riverside Church in Manhattan and declared he was opposed to the war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson turned against him, Roy Wilkins turned against him, Whitney Young turned against him. Black folk turned against him. America turned against him.

So, that you know, I havent rethought my doing the (unintelligible). But working on this King piece has reminded me and Im not comparing myself to Dr. King lest people get that confused - that when you stand up and try to raise unsettling questions you are going to be, you know, subject to some pushback at times. But there are other things that I want to do.

I just think this conversation, I was compelled to call this conversation in Chicago precisely because I never expected, Michel, when I stepped off the stage in January, from doing these conversations to the State of Black Union that is putting some other things on my plate, I had no idea that weeks later, in Black History Month no less, certain black leaders would start saying that the president doesnt have to focus on a black agenda. If you ever tell that to one president, you cannot come back to the next president and pick up that moral authority like a set of keys. It doesnt work that way.

MARTIN: Tavis Smiley is the host of The Travis Smiley Show on PBS, among many other projects which he's told you about. He's hosting a meeting in Chicago next week on March 20th entitled We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda. And he joined us from Los Angeles. Tavis, thank you so much.

Mr. SMILEY: Thank you, Michel, for the opportunity.

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