A progressive’s dilemma: Tavis Smiley vs. Al Sharpton & Dr. King vs. Barack Obama

Posted March 30, 2010

I thought this article, written by my friend Justin Jeffre for The Cincinnati Beacon is a fascinating article about the African American debate over Obama….

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PBS Radio and TV host Tavis Smiley has sparked controversy in the black community by criticizing the first Black President with what he calls “tough love.” Smiley reminds us of the tough line Dr. King drew against the war in Vietnam—a move that angered the LBJ administration, the media and other civil rights leaders. His controversial position even cost him a lot of support within the black community.

Increasingly black leaders are saying that the President isn’t doing enough to address the disproportionate effect the recession is having on the African American community. This article seems like a good starting point to discuss the growing divide on President Obama’s performance thus far and whether he needs to be pushed harder in order for him to do more or whether he should be left alone and given political cover to do whatever he thinks is best.

Here’s an excerpt:

In an interview in late December with American Urban Radio Networks, a group of black-owned stations, Mr. Obama conceded that there was “grumbling” among African-Americans, especially about his jobs policies. But he rejected the idea that he should pay special attention to them — an argument that Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black author and political analyst, called “disingenuous at best, and an insult at worst.”

Mr. Obama framed it this way: “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

Most people would agree that the President ducks the race issue as much as possible and that it has served him well politically. From the article:

Many black leaders view this as wise. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is working with Mr. Obama to close the achievement gap in education, says the president is smart not to ballyhoo “a black agenda.”

Smiley’s (tough love) response is here on the Tom Joiner Morning show where he took exception to those who shared Sharpton’s view and he even named some names. You can watch here or read it here.

Some of what he said:

*Do we think that we can give President Obama a pass on Black issues and somehow when he’s no longer in office, just resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns? How does that work? You give one president a pass on Black issues, but when he’s gone, you go right back to trying to hold the next president accountable. I don’t get how we’re going to do that.

*If we, African Americans, go silent, how do we keep our brothers and sisters in Africa and the Third World from being rendered invisible?

*Why is the Black agenda always framed, Tom, as exclusionary, reductionist, prejorative and negative? Isn’t the Black agenda the human agenda?

*Would America have even been America without her Negro people?

*If Lincoln, FDR, Truman and LBJ, all became iconic and transformational presidents by courageously confronting race can President Obama, our beloved president become a transformational president by avoiding race?

*And finally, if there is no need for a Black agenda, then why doesn’t the NAACP refund my life membership?

In closing, the words of Langston Hughes, “Looks like what drives me crazy don’t have no effect on you, but I’m going to keep on at it ‘til it drives you crazy, too.”

Rev. Al Sharpton’s furious response to Smiley is here. They have a heated discussion on Sharpton’s show here. I suggest that people listen to the exchange without reading the whacky commentary on it which seems a bit schizophrenic and hypocritical to me. I will let people be the judge of the exchange for themselves.

Smiley’s next commentary on the Tom Joiner Morning Show is here. Smiley has gotten a lot of criticism for his outspokenness. There are similar conversations that are going on in the progressive community where there is a similar rift.

Many are disillusioned with Obama’s performance and his failure to deliver on the change he promised during his well funded campaign like ending the war in Iraq and taking a new apporach towards foreign policy. Some—like local NAACP President Christopher Smitherman—point to the recent health care reform bill and argue it primarily helps blacks people.“What, does (Smiley) think (Obama’s) going to do, stand there and say, “‘I’m black, you’re black, I’m going to hook y’all up with some insurance?’ Do you think he’d get re-elected if he did that?” 

Meanwhile many in the progressive movement believe Obama compromised too far from the start and tried to appease the Republicans even though they made no secret that their intention was to just say no to what turned out to be a very Republican and corporate friendly reform bill. He appeased big business from the start by making secret deals to protect health industry profits making them the biggest beneficiaries of the bill by far.

Obama campaigned for universal health care or at least “universality,” but he shut single payer advocates out of the debate even though he had supported it in the past. And he admitted last year that he believes single payer is the only way to cover all Americans. Single payer is still the only way to reduce costs and cover all Americans cradle to grave.

Smiley argues in this Democracy Now! Interview:

It’s not so much about a level of criticism, as much as it is holding him accountable to doing those things that he said he would do, number one. And he’s done some of those things, to be sure. But I’ve said many times in our conversations that I don’t think great presidents are born. Great presidents are made.

If he’s going to become a transformational president, the progressive community—and I think that includes black folk, by and large—is going to have to help push him, to help usher him into his greatness. I believe there’s honor in accountability. And so, it starts not just with this notion of criticizing or critiquing him, but, number one, holding him accountable to what he said he was going to do; number two, recognizing that the black constituency is the most loyal constituency in his entire base; recognizing, number three, that while most Americans are being challenged and being—find themselves between a rock and a hard place, as it were, because of this economy, the numbers are clear: black folk in America are getting crushed.

And when there are certain black leaders, as there have been over the last month or two, who suggest trying to give the President some cover, sort of walking on eggshells, but suggesting publicly in the media that he doesn’t have to have a black agenda, that he need not uniquely address the concerns of black folk, I said, wait a minute, we need to have a “come to Jesus” meeting about this, because there are some of us who believe that disproportionate pain requires a disproportionate response. And so, a large group of African American thought leaders, opinion makers, policy makers, influencers met us around a—literally around a big round table at Chicago State just a week or so ago. Thousands of people packed into the auditorium at Chicago State for a conversation about how it is that we fashion and form and hold the President accountable to an African American agenda in this era of Obama, in this so-called post-racial America.

The President just made a surprise visit to Afghanistan which makes the timing of Smiley’s upcoming look at Dr. King that much more relevant to this debate. President Obama told US troops, “We did not choose this war.” He added, quote, “If I thought for a minute that America’s vital interests were not served, were not at stake here in Afghanistan, I would order all of you home right away.”

Dr. King’s prescient Beyond Vietnam speech-which many believe is the reason the government killed him-is as relevant today as it was on April 4th 1967, just one year to the day he was assassinated. You could replace Vietnam with Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq. King said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government” and his philosophy is it odds with Obama’s foreign and domestic policy.

Smiley points out how Obama is already placed in history with Dr. King from t-shirts bearing the two iconic figures faces to the President’s own acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace prize. He would have been remiss to not mention King who also won the award and paved the way for Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency.

Smiley says,

It is the speech that caused him the greatest deal of controversy and consternation, quite frankly. Most Americans, I think, know the “I Have a Dream” speech. Some Americans, Amy, know the “Mountaintop” speech given the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. But most Americans do not know this “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which got King, again, in a world of trouble. He comes out very clearly and talks about three things that are causing him consternation: militarism, racism and poverty. And he links all three of those things in this “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

And the speech is so—it so rankles and angers the country that 168 major newspapers the next day—168 the following day—all did editorials denouncing him. The New York Times, the liberal New York Times, called the speech “wasteful” and “self-defeating.” The Washington Post goes on to aver that he has done himself, his country and the world, quite frankly, a disservice, and he would never be respected again—paraphrasing it, but that’s what the Washington Post says the next day. But in most major newspapers he was denounced the next day, because the night before, in the speech, he had referred to the US, Amy, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And for saying that, he gets demonized by most major newspapers; he gets disinvited, as you said earlier, by LBJ to the White House; indeed, black leaders—Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League—black leaders turned against him. And finally, over the next year of his life before he’s killed in Memphis, the last poll taken about his popularity, a Harris poll, Amy, found that almost three-quarters of the American people had turned against King. Fifty-five percent of his own people, black folk, had turned against King. The last years of his life were very, very lonely, in part because he was so adamant about the war in Vietnam.

There’s no doubt that the Cincinnati Enquirer was among those denouncing King, but the idea that even a majority of black people had turned against Dr. King is shocking. Though we celebrate Dr. King’s contribution every single year, the history of his final years remains largely unknown because he challenged the very core of our economic system which is based on militarism, materialism and racism. 

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

King went to say,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

King also connected the war in Vietnam to poverty in America. He argued, “One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society… shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” And “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

In Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech he directly challenged King’s world view on the world stage. And some have taken exception to that in Smiley’s new PBS special,“MLK: A Call to Conscience” which will air on Wednesday night.

CORNEL WEST: Here he was shouting, a voice, prophetic voice in the wilderness, and he knew the sleepwalking was increasing. What he didn’t know was that the sleepwalking would get thicker and thicker during the age of Reagan. And what he didn’t know, that there was a black man on the way to the White House in 2009, and was hoping that there would be some awakening connected to his legacy of focusing on poor people and working people and jobs and homes and studying war, no more, not because a president would be pacifist, because it upset me when I heard my dear brother Barack Obama criticize Martin on the global stage, saying that Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s insights were not useful for a commander-in-chief, because evil exists, as if Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t know about evil.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting terrorism. He was an anti-terrorist who was fighting Jim Crow and James Crow. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew something about evil, more so than many of us, including our beloved president. But he also knew that if you don’t break the cycle of domination and bigotry and hatred and try to exemplify some alternative, then that cycle would be reinforced in such a way that you would be a pro-war president, pro-war citizen, and not giving peace a chance.

Smiley has taken a lot of heat for boldly raising the very questions that Dr. King forced America to wrestle with. And he is joined by others in his upcoming PBS special Wednesday night.

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think that they’re in very different lanes, and they have very different callings. Barack Obama presently is the brilliant, charismatic, smiling, friendly face of the American Empire. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the courageous, sacrificial, smiling, friendly face that was crushed by the American Empire. The latter is a prophet. The former is politician.

The American Empire is benefiting from its brilliant, charismatic new face, but the people of this country and indeed the people of the world will only benefit when America begins following the values and in the tradition of Dr. King. As Frederick Douglas once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will”. 

Tonight at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, C-SPAN2 will air ‘We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda’, the gathering of black leadership he recently hosted in Chicago. On Wednesday night, PBS will air Tavis Smiley’s special “MLK: A Call to Conscience”:http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/reports/episode-two.html.