Smiley finds victory in defeat

The Baltimore Sun

When his parents refused to send him to college, Tavis Smiley showed up at Indiana University anyway, eventually talking his way into a place in class and a work-study program to help pay for it. Denied an internship in the office of then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, he pleaded his case in what he acknowledges was a "tear-stained" letter to the mayor - and got his internship. Fired from his job as interview-show host on BET, he quickly turned around and landed programs on PBS, NPR and a handful of other media outlets, extending both his reach and influence.

Defeat, being told "No," has never done much to slow down Tavis Smiley; if anything, it's only prodded him on to greater victories.

So, when the top four GOP presidential candidates opted out of the presidential debate he had helped organize for 9 p.m. tomorrow at Morgan State University, to be broadcast live on PBS, he barely missed a beat.

Smiley went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to plead his case. He used his twice-weekly spots on radio's The Tom Joyner Morning Show to urge the African-American community to raise a stink, telling his audience, "no elected official, no one running for president, black, white or brown, male or female, Republican or Democrat, ought to be elected president in 2008, if they can avoid people of color, black folk and brown folk ... as these folks are doing along the way." Smiley pledged to put four empty daises onstage, as a constant reminder of the candidates who didn't show.

For Smiley, who was able to bring all the Democratic presidential candidates together for a June debate at Howard University, it was mission-all-but-accomplished.

No, he hasn't succeeded in getting Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson to reconsider their promised no-shows; all four have cited scheduling conflicts and fundraising pressures. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich labeled their reasons for passing on the debate "baloney," President Bush suggested GOP candidates ignore black voters at their own peril, and awareness of the debate rose to a level where, regardless of who shows tomorrow night, heightened media coverage and viewer interest is guaranteed. (As many as a half-dozen of the lesser-known candidates, including former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee, are expected to attend.)

"We cannot miss this moment, with regard to driving this train," Smiley told his Joyner Show audience last week, "because things are moving, quite frankly, just the way we want them to."

Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who worked with Smiley to organize the debate, labeled the GOP frontrunners' decisions "disappointing, to the point of bring hurtful. But I understand very clearly and very well the demands of time, the demands for money, the demands on the presidential candidates. But I also understand the demands of a community that needs to hear [the candidates'] views."

The 43-year-old Smiley, one of 10 children raised in an Indiana trailer park by deeply religious and stern disciplinarian parents, has made a career of advocating for the black community. He's done so as an interviewer - this week's lineup on his daily PBS show, Tavis Smiley, ranges from actor Jamie Foxx to former senator and presidential candidate Jack Kemp - and as an author. He's written or contributed to 11 books, including the introduction to last year's The Covenant with Black America. That book, in which 10 business, civic and scientific leaders offer plans for addressing black America's needs, reached the top of The New York Times best-seller list.

Looking for a solution

"He's not just been a person who is out there, saying what the problems are," says Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus. "He has worked hard to find a solution. He attempts to bring all segments of leadership together, to bring their expertise to the table, be it in finance, education, health, whatever. ... This is how we get rid of hopelessness, helplessness, and make sure that our population is well-educated and healthy."

Adds journalist Roger Wilkins, a longtime civil rights leader and professor of history and culture at George Mason University, "He is respected in the black community for both his skills as a broadcaster and for his energy and dedication. People think he is a sincere guy and a serious guy, and have a respect for what he is trying to do."

Smiley, who did not respond to several interview requests in connection with this article, writes in his 2006 autobiography, What I Know For Sure, of the determination that defined his role as a black man growing up in America in the latter part of the 20th century.

"Among the lessons I have learned," he wrote, "is, on one hand, to be grateful for all the many things we have: freedom, the potential to get ahead, the ability to achieve our dreams. At the same time, I know we must be tenacious in fighting for what we have yet to achieve: equal justice and education, economic opportunity for all."

Says Marvin "Doc" Cheatham Sr., head of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "He's enabled us not only to have dialogue, but to have knowledge of issues we may not have been knowledgeable of before. His work is outstanding and is to be commended."

National reputation

After a failed 1991 attempt at elective office in Los Angeles - Smiley came in fourth in the race for a city council seat - the former high school and collegiate oratory champion began dabbling in radio. Officials at L.A.'s KGFJ-AM agreed to air his one-minute "Smiley Reports" commentaries, and he began developing a national reputation that year after the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial focused media attention on race relations in the city. By 1996, he was appearing on the Joyner show, a syndicated radio program available in more than 100 markets, and also hosting Black Entertainment Television's BET Tonight public affairs program.

In 2001, BET owner Robert Johnson fired the increasingly popular Smiley, claiming he had violated his contract by selling an interview he had obtained with Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson to ABC without offering it to BET first. Smiley insisted there was no such requirement and countered that he had offered the piece to CBS - which, like BET, was owned at the time by media conglomerate Viacom.

Smiley found a new home on PBS, as well as a national radio gig on National Public Radio. The latter association ended in December 2004, when Smiley announced he was dropping his radio show; in his autobiography, he complains that NPR was, "In essence, [a] private club for educated white people, and I felt the network had no real interest in reaching beyond its core audience."

He soon signed on with rival Public Radio International, where he continues to host a weekly two-hour program (heard locally at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYPR-FM and 9 p.m. Sundays on WEAA-FM).

Regardless of where his shows originate, Smiley's advocacy of black empowerment has remained constant. And while he has earned the scorn of some conservative commentators, who have argued that he is simply another proponent of government solving black America's problems, Smiley is seen by his fans as a key voice in ensuring the struggle against racial inequalities remains front and center.

"What Tavis does is put the magnifying glass on the issues, and that is critically important," says Tyrone D. Taborn, a contributor to The Covenant with Black America as publisher of Baltimore-based Career Communications Group, which offers books and Web sites aimed at minority technology specialists. "He moves beyond rhetoric, he moves us toward the issue of thinking about the steps we have to take."

Adds Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, publisher of The Covenant, "He is a facilitator. ... He is able to bring people from all different stripes, who are leaders in their various fields, together for dialogue and strategies.

"If there was not a Tavis Smiley, that spot [of facilitator] would be vacant. No one else in the country does what he is doing."

Tavis Smiley


Sept. 13, 1964, in Gulfport, Miss.


Bunker Hill, Ind. His stepfather, Emory Garnell Smiley, was in the Air Force at the time, stationed at nearby Grissom Air Reserve Base.

Defining moment:

The death of a college friend, Denver Smith, shot by police in Bloomington, Ind., in September 1983. "The murder of Denver Smith," Smiley writes in his autobiography, "turned me into an advocate for black rights."

How to say "no" to a Cuban dictator:

After a 1999 interview with Fidel Castro, Smiley asked him to sign a book of photographs of Cuba. Castro liked the book so much, he asked to keep it. Despite Castro's insistence that the book belonged in Cuba, Smiley got his book back.


See clips from Tavis Smiley's show at

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