It is ironical that these African Americans chose a celebration of Martin Luther Jr. to blackball and silence Tavis Smiley because of his political critique of a Black leader who like all other leaders should be held accountable for his deeds and policies.
by Ruby Sales
Do We Believe that a Black President is above critique even when he stands aloof from the human rights of ordinary people here and abroad? Tell me it is not so!
I just read a post that Tavis Smiley was uninvited to speak at an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. luncheon in Peoria, Illinois because of an organized protest by Black members of a book club. As I read this post, my stomach sank and a deep pool of sadness flowed throughout my body. After ruminating through my deep angst, sorrow and righteous indignation, I must boldly say that I am aghast at their aggressive demonizing, silencing and blackballing of Smiley because he is critical of the policies and stances of President Obama. I am aghast that I have not heard the thunder of these Black voices roaring over the fact that Newt Gingrich is speaking at a major NAACP event after he made the racist comment that Blacks should seek jobs rather than welfare. I am aghast and indignant that I do not hear them rising up and blackballing the White masters of redistricting maps that dissipate the meaning and power of our votes. I am deeply disturbed that I have not seen them uniting the power of their voices to challenge and blackball local politicians in Chicago whose policies and public rhetoric push Black youth into rivers of systemic injustice that drown far too many of them. President Obama can speak for himself, but what about our youth who are vulnerable and powerless in these turbulent waters. Who defends and speaks for them?
Where have we come on our journey for freedom and democracy when we believe that a Black President is above critique? When we silence speech and blackball people who speak out, we are dancing on a slippery slope that leads us further toward fascism.
I have heard the argument that Tavis Smiley is an awful person. I don’t know if he is insufferable, vain or mean spirited. Nor do I care because his personal defects are not the issue. The point is that they should not determine his right to speak and be heard in a democracy. The constitution does not limit a person’s right to speak based on character. If that were the case, many people would not be holding the microphone at Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. And the truth of the matter is Smiley is not the problem. He does not have the power to diminish poverty, racism or any other assaults on our human rights. Vicious and personal assaults on Tavis Smiley turn our gaze away from interrogating the President on issues that matter to us and on issues that he can impact through his speeches and public policy leadership.
It is ironical that these African Americans chose a celebration of Martin Luther Jr. to blackball and silence Tavis Smiley because of his political critique of a Black leader who like all other leaders should be held accountable for his deeds and policies. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be aghast and would vehemently and eloquently stand on the side of democracy and Smiley’s right to speak out without being demonized, blackballed or isolated. Listen to King’s words on Black leadership in his article, “Black Power Defined”:
And so we have to create leaders that embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles that we can applaud with an enthusiasm that allows us to rally support for them based on confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards and give consistent, loyal support to those who merit it. We have to be a reliable constituency for those who prove themselves to be committed political warriors on our behalf… We must learn to refuse crumbs from the big-city machines and steadfastly demand a fair share of the loaf. When the big-city politicians demur, we must be prepared to act in unity and throw our support to such independent parties or reform wings of the major parties as are prepared to take our demands seriously and fight for them vigorously.
King knew and warned us that power does not trickle down to the bottom. Nor is a trickle the object of our long struggle for freedom. This includes the struggles of White progressives. Nothing changes as MLK, Jr. knew until We the People use the power of our voices and our actions to create mutual alliances that eradicate systemic injustice; the systemic injustice that robs us of our voices and shares of the fruits of the world that our hands help build. The future of the nation is in our hands, not in the hands of the President.
Do we really believe that President Obama has heard the cries of the systemic sufferings of Black people and our brothers and sisters everywhere? Are we supporting him based on merit or based on color? Are we called to protect the Presidency of President Obama or are we called to demand power, justice, regard and action for the people?
In balance, I must say to Tavis Smiley and the organizers of this event that a speaking fee to Tavis Smiley of $37,500 and his accepting it is obscene and stands over and against the life and values of MLK, Jr. I am deeply disturbed that my brother and sister veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement/Civil Rights Movement who fought to change the soul of this country are rarely asked to speak on this day, and rarely if ever are they offered such speaking fees. Their voices are sidelined as many of them struggle to economically survive in a society that overlooks them in favor of big names in popular culture who are the beneficiaries of the hard work of these veterans. I offer my protest and in the name of my movement brothers and sisters I say stop your shameless profiteering of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Freedom Movement.
In addition to asking freedom fighters to speak, why not give a donation to the SNCC Legacy Project, Veterans of Hope, The History Makers or Historically Black colleges from which many freedom fighters came?
Ruby Nell Sales is a highly-trained, experienced, and deeply-committed social activist, scholar, administrator, manager, and educator in the areas of Civil, Gender, and other Human Rights. She is a co-director of the Spirit House Project.