The house was packed for the San Francisco NAACP Freedom Fund Gala, “We Shall Not Be Moved Until Justice Rolls Down Like a Mighty Stream,” at the Union Square Hilton on Saturday, Nov. 9, when Tavis Smiley, named one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” by TIME magazine, broadcaster, author of 16 books, publisher, advocate and philanthropist, took the mic. Beginning with excerpts from his introduction by San Francisco NAACP President Dr. Amos C. Brown, here is Tavis’ provocative and profoundly moving address:
Rev. Dr. Amos Brown introduces Tavis Smiley: Words fall far too short for me to express how privileged we are to have the gentleman I will present to you as our featured guest speaker. Let there be no mistake about it – there are some of you who asked me why would you have Tavis Smiley to speak for the NAACP banquet. And given that both of us come from Mississippi we know how to take care of ourselves considering all the hell we went through down there and indeed we have been given a brain to think for ourselves. …
I think that Tavis Smiley has not been intimidated by those critics who are still in a state of euphoria over the first African-American being elected president of this country, but they fail to realize that … the reality is today, in 2013, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is over 14 percent and in 1963 it was only 10.3 percent. …
My friends, I thank God for a brother who realized what Mary McLeod Bethune said to the National Council of Negro Women, “Don’t you privileged middle-class Negroes who are talking about you’re the first this and the first that in government, in medicine, in science – I want you to make sure,” she said, “that you are not the last Negro in your position.”
Tavis Smiley has spoken the truth and he loves our president as I love him and has supported him, but God knows as the truth be told we’ve got to be like Jesus of Nazareth, who was concerned about the poor, the least of those, and that’s what he stands on. And I present to you a brother who’s concerned about the underdog, the locked-out, the left-over, the looked-around and those who are marginalized in this society.
I give to you the man who speaks his mind, Tavis Smiley, the brother from Mississippi who will tell it like it is tonight. Give it up for him as he comes to give us a word of encouragement, of hope, of clarity, of conviction, of power and of prophetic utterances. Let us hear him.
Tavis Smiley: What my friend Rev. Brown did not tell you was that the first Negro to call him and ask him why are you asking Tavis to come to San Francisco on this august occasion to speak to a roomful of Black folks and others – the first Negro to call him and ask him that question was me. I said to him, “You must be on a suicide mission and you must want the room to be half-full if in this moment of American history you’re asking me to come and address a gathering such as this.”
Because it is the case, as your mentor and professor, many of you know that Rev. Brown was honored to be one amongst a small group of persons who had the high honor of sitting as a student in the only class that Dr. King ever taught at his alma mater, Morehouse. Amos Brown was a student in that classroom. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to sit at Martin’s feet, and I regard Dr. King, let me be clear about this, I regard him as the greatest American this country has ever produced. That’s my assessment: the greatest American this country has ever produced.
I said that once to my friend Dick Gregory, and he ‘bout slapped me upside my head and he said Martin was a great American, but we went into a five-hour debate about Martin vs. John Brown. That’s another conversation for another night. But if you know anything about the history of John Brown, you can understand why Dick Gregory would pick John Brown even over his friend Martin King as the greatest American ever. But since Dick ain’t here, I’m going to win this argument tonight.
I regard Dr. King as the greatest American we ever produced, and for Amos Brown to be sitting in that classroom at the feet of Martin King – I’ve thought about that so many, many times over the years. So it’s not just because he’s my brother or not just because he’s a fellow Mississippian, but I celebrate your courage and I’m going to talk about courage tonight. I celebrate your courage, I celebrate your conviction, I celebrate your commitment, I celebrate your character. And anything you ever ask of me I hope that I’ll be able to do it.
Anything you ask of me I am there for you because when you try in this environment, as you alluded, to speak some truth to power, it rates you unpopular. Dr. King once called it a vocation of agony. Trying to tell the truth, King said, is a vocation of agony and I’m no Dr. King, but I know a little somethin’ somethin’ about that over the last few years. It is the case that because of trying to speak the truth one has been called everything but a child of God.
And so I was surprised when Dr. Brown asked me to come address this gathering, but of course I wasn’t going to say “no” to him because I didn’t want to dishonor the kind invite, but also because it’s time for us to come to terms with the truth of the suffering that’s being rendered invisible in our own community even in the era of Barack Obama. It’s time for us to come to terms with that.
I thought of your friend, your teacher, your mentor, Dr. Brown, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mayes, who said that I have only but a minute, only 60 seconds in it. Forced upon me, I didn’t seek it, I didn’t choose it, but it’s up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it, give account if I abuse it. Just a tiny little minute, but all of eternity is wrapped up in it. So the question for us tonight in the few minutes I have is how, against all of the odds, how are we going to maximize this moment?
How do we maximize the moment that we find ourselves in where our people are suffering in ways now, even in the era of Obama that they have never suffered before? Not because I said it but because the data bears that out. How then do we make the most, how do we maximize the moment that we find ourselves in?
Harry Edwards made reference to the song by my dear friend – I don’t how it is that I’ve been blessed enough to live in this era and to be on PBS every night and NPR every day and to meet so many wonderful people – but I count after all these years Tony Bennett as a friend of mine. I think if he were here he’d tell you the same thing. We hung out here in this country and around the world and nobody can lay on that song of course like Tony Bennett. And Harry Edwards made reference to leaving his heart and the 49ers having left their hearts in San Francisco.
I come to San Francisco tonight not having left my heart here but I come here tonight with a heavy heart. I come with a heavy heart given the conditions that our people are wrestling with and yet as I walked into the room tonight with a heavy heart, Dr. Brown, because of your leadership and the team here at the San Francisco NAACP and the wisdom and the choices that you all have made tonight to honor these great San Franciscans and to honor these great Americans, even as I have sat in this room tonight I have been not just empowered, not just inspired and not just moved but I have been re-energized by the example and by the witness and by the living epistles that we have seen walk up on this stage tonight.
I’ve been reminded, as I hope you have, that even when things have been beyond worse, beyond horrific for us, we have found a way to survive. I mean you see all these honorees, I’m scared to start calling names because you’ve been in the same room I have, you’ve heard the back-story, you know the history and you are honored to have these persons walk amongst you every day.
But when you see the sacrifice, when you see the struggle, when you see the service of an Amos Brown, of a Cecil Williams and Dr. Churchill, and all these others who have come across the stage tonight, it reminds you, I hope – it certainly reminds me – that there is a calling on our lives, that there’s a purpose on our lives, that there is a vocation, not a job, but a calling, a purpose, a vocation that each one of us has been given to leave the world better than we found it.
And so I sat tonight just watching and listening and taking in all of this greatness. I want to be clear, I didn’t say success; I said greatness. They are two different things, you realize. You can be successful without ever being great, but you’ll never be great without being successful. Can I prove this to you right quick?
As a quick example, Donald Trump: By the world’s definition, Donald’s never done anything easy. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on him, but by definition Donald is quite successful. But ain’t nobody every going to call Donald Trump great. He’s successful but he’s not great.
So you can be successful without ever being great, but you’ll never be great without being successful. And I find that we live in a world where everybody is chasing success, and all that really means is that they’re chasing significance. But nobody’s trying to be great. Dr. Brown and Dr. King said that any of us can be great because any of us can serve. All it takes is a heart full of grace and a soul that’s generated by love. So any of us can be great in our lives.
We live in a world where everybody wants to be successful. Can I take it to the next level? It’s not just that we want to be successful; it’s that everybody and everything is up for sale. We’re all commodities. We are available to the highest bidder. So nobody lives lives anymore based on a set of immutable principles. It’s whoever will put the highest price on your head, whoever will pay you the most for those principles, for those beliefs, for those values.
Everything and everybody seems to be for sale. So it becomes difficult in this critical moment. When we ought to be wrestling with these uncomfortable and inconvenient and unsettling truths, it becomes difficult in this moment to have a conversation about the suffering of our people, because everybody’s chasing success.
Nobody – like the folk we saw on this stage tonight – nobody came across this stage tonight having started years ago trying to be successful. The goal was to be great. You think Harriet Tubman went back 19 times trying to be successful? Harriet Tubman was trying and reaching for something greater. She was trying to be great in her lifetime.
She didn’t go back 19 times because she thought somebody was going to write a book about her or do a documentary series about her or name a building after her or put her name on a college. That’s not what Harriet Tubman was all about. She went back 19 times trying to be great in her lifetime.
Martin didn’t put himself on the line trying to be successful. Malcolm X wasn’t trying to be successful. (Mary McLeod) Bethune wasn’t trying to be successful – and all that we seem to talk about these days with our bourgeois sensibilities is how successful we are. And that’s what Dr. Brown is talking about when he’s referencing the first Negro to do this and do that and the first Negro to do the other. And everybody wants to be successful.
I didn’t come here tonight to celebrate the NAACP because they’ve been successful over the years in this city and indeed they have. We wouldn’t be here were it not the witness of the NAACP and that is why, before you ask, I am a lifetime member and if there’s anything that gives me the right to stand here tonight, it ain’t because you invited me but because I paid my dues. I paid my dues. I’m a lifetime member of this organization, so if anybody can critique it, I can.
And so I came tonight not to celebrate the success of this branch but the greatness of the efforts of this city and beyond on our behalf by this grand organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the question that still lingers and hangs in the room tonight: How do we get at the truth about the suffering in this moment when it is so impolitic, when it is so impolite to raise those uncomfortable, inconvenient and unsettling truths.
Now if you think I’ve said something already, strap yourself in. Tell me when you’re ready. Everybody fastened in? All right. Now this is the truth you don’t want to hear. The good news is I got my plane ticket back to L.A. so I’m all right. I’ve already checked the closest exit to me, so I know how to get out of here and I know how to get back home.
But here’s the truth. The truth is that when the era of Obama is over. And unless you think I’m about to demonize the president and cast a spell on him, you’ve missed the point already so, as my preacher says, “stay with me”; I’m going somewhere with this. But the truth of the matter is this: When Barack Obama is no longer our president in a just a few short years, and you see how fast the time goes, so I’m saying a few short years but in a few more days before he is what we in politics call a lame duck, they’re pushing this Hillary Clinton story front page every day. If you thought she was coronated or if she thought that she was coronated the last time, and you know what happened the last time, she thought she was coronated, this Negro Obama came out of nowhere and just disrupted that coronation, and I’m glad about it.
But if you thought the first time around was a coronation do you see the way that everybody and everything is already lining up in support of Hillary Clinton, and I’m not mad at it. I don’t knock hustle. So I’m not mad at Hillary Clinton. But you see how the ducks are already starting to line up in the Democratic primary.
I sometimes feel sorry for ol’ Joe Biden. Joe’s like, what about me? I’m here. I’m the vice president. I’ve been a good vice president. And we’re just looking right past Joe Biden. He’s trying to get our attention, and we’re looking right past him. And God help if you’re anybody other than Joe Biden, ‘cause Hillary is just sucking all the air out the room and we ain’t got – I said it: We ain’t got nowhere near 2016. And they keep pushing out in the Chronicle and everywhere else every day, can’t wait for the 2016 contest.
So it’s just a matter of time, a matter of days before Barack Obama is going to be irrelevant anyway. So this conversation isn’t about Barack Obama anyway; it’s about us. It’s about us. It’s about the NAACP. It’s about all these organizations and all of us as individuals and about what we are going to do to maximize this brief moment that we have. It’s just a moment: 60 seconds. You didn’t choose it, but it’s up to you to use it. You’re going to suffer if you abuse it. Just a tiny little minute, but all of eternity for us is wrapped up in it. What are we going to do with the moment that we have to turn the tide against what is threatening to take us under? How do we make the most of this moment?
Now, here’s the reality. When the era of Barack Obama is over, the data already indicates – let me back up and give a quick reference here. The data indicates – and if you happen to be atheist or agnostic, then something miraculous is going to have to happen and, if you’re a believer as I am, it’s going to take a move of God – but the data already indicates that when the era of Obama is over, Black people, his most loyal and steadfast constituency, will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category.
Not because I said it – check your facts. You want some cites? Go to the Pew Research Center. Go to the NAACP Foundation. Go to Austan Goolsbee. In a conversation on my PBR show just a few weeks ago, Austan Goolsbee was the head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This is the president’s numbers man, who is now back at the University of Chicago.
And he’s in Chicago now studying this, in Chicago scratching his head trying to figure out what this means, that in the era of the first African-American president, Black people lost ground in every single leading economic category. Are you still with me? Let me go forward; then I’m going to come back. Imagine, if you will, 20, 50, 75 years from now the quagmire that the historians are going to find themselves in. Historians are going to ask themselves first, how is it that at the very moment that these Negroes were celebrating the first African-American president of the United States, how is it that at that very moment the bottom fell out for Black America? How is it? Now that is the question. Negroes be wrestling with this. How is it?
See, I’m not looking at 2016 at Hillary or whoever it’s going to be. I’m already past that. I’m down the road trying to figure out what the historians are going to be wrestling with years from now. How is it that at this very moment we were celebrating the election of the first African-American president – let me say right quick I don’t think I need to say this but I find sometimes I need to, but otherwise you must really be stuck on stupid if you ain’t otherwise. So I don’t need to say this, but let me say it otherwise: If you think that I, unlike anybody else in this room, if you think I voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin, put down the crack pipe. If you think that I voted for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, put down the pipe.
So this is not about hating on the president. Are you all with me? It’s not about demonizing or casting aspersions on him. It’s about the facts. It’s about the data. It’s about the suffering. Stay with me; I’m going somewhere with this. I’m coming back to what our mission is at this moment.
In the era of the first African-American president, Black people lost ground in every single leading economic category.
But the data is going to indicate that we lost ground in every single leading economic category, and the historians are going to scratch their heads and ask how was that possible. They’re going to check the data and they’re going to check it again and they’re going to check it again and yet again, because the numbers just aren’t going to make any sense to them. They’re going to try to juxtapose: But there was a Black man in the White House, and all the Black folk were celebrating this Black man in the White House, but the bottom fell out at that very moment. How is that possible? That’s the first question they’re going to ask.
And then right behind it, the second question will simply be, all right, now that we see what happened, who said something about it? Who said something? Did anybody do anything? Was anybody drawing attention to this reality? Was anybody organizing to turn the tide against those numbers? Who was saying something and who was doing something? And the truth of the matter is that we ain’t going to fall but in one of two categories. Let me make it plain: Either you said something or you didn’t. Either you did something or you didn’t. It’s just that simple. That’s how history is going to regard us. Either you said something in this moment, either you did something or you didn’t.
And the reality is that there are so many of us in our community, in the Black community, the progressive community, who have been sidelined and silenced out of too much deference. For some folk, it’s deference; for some folk, it’s fear; for some folk, it’s wanting to keep their invitation to events. Don’t want to upset the president.
Even though nobody put a gun to his head, even though he decided to run, he asked for the job, we don’t want to upset him. I’m working right now on – Dr. Brown, I’ll send you a few chapters soon I want you to read – but I’m working on a book now about Dr. King. The book is called “Death of a King.”
The book focuses, as I think no other book ever has, just on the last 12 months of his life. As you well know, the most controversial speech he ever gave was “Beyond Vietnam.” He gives this speech April 4, 1967. A year to the day later, he’s dead on that balcony in Memphis, April 4, 1968.
Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967, “Beyond Vietnam”: When Martin comes out against the war, a year later to the day, they shoot him dead on the balcony. He was in Memphis to march with the sanitation workers, as you all know, but he was on his way to Washington to kick off his Poor People’s Campaign. He was starting with the poor in Memphis, but he was on his way to Washington because – how can I put this to where we can understand it? – to occupy. The Occupy as we know ain’t got nothing on the Occupy that Martin was about to set off. ‘Cause he wasn’t going to Zuccotti Park in New York City.
He was going to the National Mall, and they were setting up a tent city at the National Mall and Martin – and thousands of others were going to meet him there – and they were going to take over the National Mall in Washington. And they didn’t want that Negro coming to Washington to set it off in that way. I raise this only because Martin tried to tell the truth. And when he tried to ring the bell, when he tried to get our attention to how impoverished the conditions were for everyday people, when he came out against that war in Vietnam based on his strong belief in nonviolence, everybody and everything turned against him.
The cosmos as it were seemed to turn against Dr. King. Can I keep it real with you? This isn’t politic, but this is the truth. The head of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, blasted Dr. King publicly because Lyndon Johnson told him to. Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League, blasted Dr. King publicly ‘cause Johnson told him to. The Tavis Smiley of his day, Carl Rowan, went on TV and radio and blasted Dr. King publicly ‘cause the White House told him to. The only other Negro with a Nobel Peace Prize was Ralph Bunch. Ralph Bunch blasted Dr. King publicly ‘cause the Johnson administration told him to.
Martin was trying to tell the truth, and everybody turned against him. The last poll in his life, the Harris Poll, found that 72 percent of Americans at large – 72 percent of the national populace – no longer wanted to hear anything he had to say. Seventy-two percent of the American people had turned against him, but that ain’t the worst: 57 percent of Black folk. But this was our leader. This is the “I Have a Dream” man. This is the man with the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the guy who led the March on Washington with Bayard Rustin. This is the guy who fought to get us voting rights, civil rights acts – in the right order, civil rights acts and voting rights acts.
This is OUR Martin King, and 57 percent of us had turned against Dr. King trying to curry favor with the man in the White House. So Martin was trying to tell the truth about the suffering of our people, but the bourgeois people, the upper echelon told Martin to go sit down and shut up. And the everyday Negroes – Sly Stone would say the everyday people – the everyday people had turned against Martin, Brother Edwards, as you know, because the Panthers were coming on. They thought Martin was passé at that time. They were past Martin.
Black Power was coming on. So the young people were down with the Panthers and they wanted something more radical, Rev. Williams, so they wanted something more radical, the young people did, and the bourgeois Negroes wanted Martin to go sit down and shut up. And the White folk just said, “Negro, foreign policy is not your lane.” You deal with civil rights, and if it ain’t civil rights, shut up. And so Martin had the cosmos turn against him.
His last book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” you know the truth, Dr. Brown: He couldn’t even get a book deal. No publisher in New York wanted to publish Dr. King. He wanted to write an editorial, and they wouldn’t publish his editorials anymore. This is the Martin we’re going to bring to y’all that you don’t know. But this is what Martin was up against the last couple of years of his life as he was trying – against the White House – to tell the truth about the suffering.
Now let me keep it real one more time, and I’m going to take my seat. This is the problem: Too many organizations and too many of our leaders have been bought and bossed. Too many of them have been silenced and sidelined. And so the suffering has gotten worse, the sickness is atrophying, and nobody wants to say nothing. I believe the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who see the suffering of God’s children and won’t say nothing about it.
And so, ultimately it’s not about the president. Whenever I say something and people want to come at me, I say it’s not about the president; it’s not about me and the president. There is a new book out, by the way, that just broke out this week. I know some of you are already aware of this. The book came out in 2008 called “Game Change,” and it was the book about the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The book became a movie and won all kinds of awards, and everybody read and saw the book “Game Change” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
So the new book, the sequel, just dropped this week called “Double Down: Game Change 2012.” And the first story that broke out of this book that most of you heard about a week ago, the first story that broke out of that book was the story that they broke – Halperin and Heilemann – that the administration seriously considered replacing Joe Biden with Hillary as the running mate. Y’all saw this story a couple of weeks ago. Before the book came out, that story was leaked. That’s how you sell books. You leak the juicy stuff. So they put that out there and that had been on all the talk shows: The administration was seriously thinking of replacing Joe Biden with Hillary.
This is the problem: Too many organizations and too many of our leaders have been bought and bossed. Too many of them have been silenced and sidelined. And so the suffering has gotten worse, the sickness is atrophying, and nobody wants to say nothing. I believe the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who see the suffering of God’s children and won’t say nothing about it.
So the story that just broke in the last 36 hours – if you don’t believe me, go home and Google it – is a chapter talking about the president and what he thinks of Black leaders. The president, the authors tell us and the advisors around the president tell us and the data bears this out, if you talk to the Congressional Black Caucus, the authors tell us the president has as little patience for the CBC as he has for the Tea Party. He doesn’t have time for the Congressional Black Caucus.
The only two members in the Caucus the president likes are John Lewis and Jim Clyburn. The rest of them he has no regard for, and that underscores why he has not been meeting with the CBC when they have been trying to give him a document of what needs to be done for our people. These are the folk that we – the Black folk that WE – send to Congress with the support and cooperation of the NAACP. These are our representatives to push our agenda, and the White House doesn’t want to hear none of that.
And then they start calling the roll of certain African-American leaders. For disclosure, my name is on this list and it’s in the book, but there’s a whole group of us, and it just happens to be those who are trying lovingly to push the president to do a little bit more. He refers to us in the book, and these are the president’s words: He refers to us not as Black professionals but as professional Blacks.
That’s his term for us, that we’re professional Blacks. And so every one of the morning shows – George Stephanopoulos on ABC and David Gregory on NBC and Bob Seifert on CBS – every one of them called me in the last 24 hours and asked me could I get to Washington to be on the show this Sunday because I’m going to mix it up with them on this issue. And I said I gave my word to Amos Brown, so I’m going to be in San Francisco. I will not be in Washington this Sunday, but let me check my calendar for next week.
Because if we end up being regarded or disregarded as professional Blacks because the critique is something you don’t want to hear and something you don’t want to deal with, that’s a real problem. So here’s the bottom line: Our community is in trouble. Let me go farther than that. Our community, the Black prophetic tradition that Cecil Williams and Amos Brown and so many others are living epistles of, the Black prophetic tradition as we know it of speaking truth to power no matter who’s in the White House, that tradition which is the best of who we are, we have been the conscience of this country.
The best of our tradition, that Black prophetic tradition, right now is on life support. We put our tradition of truth-telling down on a cabinet like it’s a set of keys. We are going to come back and pick up that moral authority when we get ready to pick it up. Moral authority don’t work that way. You don’t put it down when you don’t want it or don’t need it and then pick it back up when it’s convenient. It doesn’t work that way.
Dr. King said that the ultimate measure of a people is not where they stand in times of comfort and convenience but where they stand in times of controversy and challenge. And that’s where we stand right now, controversy and challenge. And that’s true all across the country. It’s true for our people all across the country, but we live here in California; you live in San Francisco, I live in L.A.
It is an embarrassment, it is an embarrassment to this state and to the citizens of this state what’s been happening with our prison system. It’s an embarrassment to us and to the nation. It is an embarrassment that poverty is highest in this state than in any state in the country – that news broke this week. We are the most populous state, but just per capita we have more poverty here than anywhere else in the nation. We come together and put on our best, have a wonderful meal, support the NAACP with a check and we think we’ve done our part. But the suffering is growing exponentially by the day. Back to my point.
Years down the road when they look down on this moment and they ask how it is that in the era of the first Black president the bottom was falling out of Black America. There’ll be a number of answers to that question. One of the answers will be Republican obstructionism, and there was a whole lot of it. No doubt about that, that’s going to be one of the answers – there are plenty of answers on this list – that they wanted this president to fail. So there’ll be a lot of answers for this situation.
It is an embarrassment to this state and to the citizens of this state what’s been happening with our prison system. It is an embarrassment that poverty is highest in this state than in any state in the country – that news broke this week. We are the most populous state, but just per capita we have more poverty here than anywhere else in the nation.
But it is going to be inexcusable – it will be absolutely inexcusable then; it’s reprehensible now – that WE, that WE have not done our part during this crisis. I have a simple edict when it comes to this president or any other president, very simple: I respect the president, I protect the president, but when he’s wrong, I’m going to correct the president.
I respect every president. Even though I disagree with him, he’s my president and I will respect him. I will protect this president. I’ve been on Fox News and everywhere else when the occasion was right and prime. I’ve been everywhere defending this president against the kinds of vitriolic, racist, right-wing, white supremecist attacks that he’s been subjected to – worse than any other president in the history of this nation for all the obvious reasons. When those moments happen, because he’s the president, he deserves to be protected.
But can I tell you something? He ain’t Jesus. He don’t walk on water and he ain’t perfect, and when he’s wrong, he needs to be corrected. And that’s what we have not done enough of. The CBC has felt hamstrung. They felt hogtied ‘cause we sent them there to represent our best interests, and so when they raise the issue of Black unemployment – critical of the president and the White House – they don’t want to hear that. And they raise the issue of crime in inner cities. They don’t want to hear that. When they raise the issue of guns on the South Side of Chicago where the president is from and elsewhere – until it happened at the school up in Connecticut, it wasn’t a priority. And then Joe Biden gets put up in front of a task force.
I’m not comparing tragedies and God knows I believe that all life is precious. But what’s happening to our kids, nobody in the West Wing said nothing about it. When it happened to their kids, now we have a national task force. This president has dropped more drones than George Bush did. He’s killed more innocent children than George Bush has. Every Tuesday in the White House – read your New York Times – every Tuesday he personally decides who’s on the Kill List. He picks the people to be killed every week.
What has happened to our community? Dr. King was our messenger. He was our leader. We taught the country the value and the power found in nonviolence. It’s not the right of might; it’s the might of right. It’s not the love of power; it’s the power of love. And somehow even in this era, we have been so seduced, the sleepwalking is so severe that we sit by even when violence by our government is perpetrated upon innocent women and children, and out of deference we ain’t got nothing to say about it.
Now this ain’t the kind of conversation, this ain’t the kind of presentation, this ain’t the kind of talk that gets you standing ovations. It ain’t the kind that gets you embraced; it ain’t the kind of talk that gets invited quite often. Hence, my beginning: I don’t know what’s wrong with you for inviting me here.
But the bottom line is that everything in our community is pointing in the wrong direction. Symbolism matters, but substance matters more. Symbolism is important, don’t get me wrong. I celebrate it as much as anybody else. I voted for it twice just like everybody else did. Symbolism matters, but substance matters more. And when all the data indicates that we are losing ground in every – it’s not one, two or three – in every leading economic indicator category, we are losing ground.
Now let me take you one more step. You know what’s going to happen when he’s out of office, right? Every political – let me back up real quick. They’re doing it already. You are just as astute as I am so you see already if you’re paying attention how the news media is already starting to rewrite the narrative on his presidency. Are you paying attention to this? When John McCain lost, he complained that the media was just so in love with Barack Obama that they gave him a pass. Mitt Romney had some of the same complaints, although it wasn’t the honeymoon in 2012 that it was in 2008. McCain was right about that. But they complained about how the media was just in his pocket.
Look now at how they’re starting to change the narrative. They got him on his knees the other day apologizing metaphorically, on his knees apologizing the other day like he was the one writing the code for the health care system. Got him on his knees. It wasn’t enough that Kathleen Sebelius did it – she was in charge of it – but they want the president to get on his knees and apologize. Chuck Todd took so much pride and pleasure in sticking that question to him the other night. They got the president apologizing like he’s the one writing the code.
They’re laughing at the flip-flop on Syria. Now I can debate you on the flip-flop. As of the other day, the good news is that we haven’t gone to war with Syria, so the president did something right in that situation. So they’re going to make a mockery of him on the flip-flop on the Syria question. My time is up. I could go on and on, but every day you are starting to see the way they are changing the narrative. I tell my friends all the time, the media – they build you up and then they tear you down. I tell folk, no, your conjunction is wrong.
They don’t build you up and then tear you down. They build you up TO tear you down, and the tearing down is starting to happen right now. Now here is where this is going to go down. You heard it first at the San Francisco NAACP dinner. Here’s how it’s going to go. When they get done with Barack Obama and we try to put another Negro up somewhere down the road – some of y’all see this already, don’t you – they are going to say we tried that once before and y’all sent us the best Negro you had, with a Harvard pedigree, head of the law review, etc., etc., etc. You sent us the best one you had; now you’re trying to send us somebody else? I’ve already figured this out and I think you have too.
When it comes to phenotype, the darker the president, the more dedicated the opposition. I will say it again. The darker the president, the more dedicated, the more determined the opposition will be. If Hillary does win, just based on her being a woman, she’s going to suffer a lot of indignities. Because she’s a woman, the opposition is coming full force. I hope you see my point here, that when this era is over we’re going to have to have a “come to Jesus” meeting in Black America.
We have to ask ourselves, was the price of the ticket too high? The price of this ticket tonight apparently wasn’t too high for y’all to get up in here. But we’re going to have a conversation in the next few years to ask ourselves was the price that we paid for admission to THAT party, was the price of that ticket too high? Now, close on this note:
I don’t believe that given the choices that we did anything wrong when it came to electing Barack Obama as our leader. We made the right – when you tweet this tonight, tweet it right; when you Facebook it, Facebook it right – we made the right choice in 2008, and we made the right choice in 2012. We made the right choice.
But that does not absolve us, NAACP. Are y’all hearing me now? That does not absolve us of our responsibility to tell the truth in season and out of season. We have to stand in our truth. And when the suffering of our people is this extreme, somebody, somebody, somebody has got to say something.
That’s why I celebrate Bay View, because somebody has got to say something. Somebody has got to put that spotlight on the suffering, because when the suffering doesn’t have a voice, it gets rendered invisible. Every one of us has a thumbprint that makes us uniquely who we are, and as surely as you have a unique, identifiable thumbprint on your hand, God gave you a thumbprint on your throat. There’s a thumbprint on your throat, and if you aren’t going to raise your voice on behalf of our people who are catching hell in this moment, then we’re in trouble.
We sang tonight the Negro anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” When you get a chance, open that book up and look at that lyric that you read and ran right past it – we sing it all the time and don’t pay attention to what we’re saying – but the line says that we’re such a bad people that we had hope and “hope unborn had died.” Y’all didn’t get that. When John Rosamond Johnson and his brother, James Weldon Johnson, put this thing together and they wrote that line that we had hope when “hope unborn had died,” that means that when hope got to us, it was stillborn, and we found a way to hope anyway.
I have never been a Negro who was optimistic, but I believe in hope. Optimism suggests that there’s a particular set of facts or circumstances or conditions that gives you reason to believe that things are going to get better so you say, “I’m optimistic.” But hope is a very different thing. I’m not a preacher, but the Bible I read says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. You’ve got to find a way to hope when you can’t see what the next step is going to be, and that’s where we are.
That’s why I celebrate Bay View, because somebody has got to say something. Somebody has got to put that spotlight on the suffering, because when the suffering doesn’t have a voice, it gets rendered invisible.
Now I believe in hope. I’m a prisoner of hope. I’m not an optimist, because evidence doesn’t suggest that we have any reason to be optimistic; but it never has. Since the founding of the NAACP, it never has. There’s never ever been a dark moment that we’ve endured where the evidence ever said that things for us were going to be all right. But we have found a way against all the odds to hope ourselves into the future.
But here’s what I came to tell you tonight. I’m a prisoner of hope, but guess what? Even hope needs some help, and that’s where the NAACP comes in as an organization, and that’s where you come in as an individual. And every single one of us has a responsibility and a duty to know the truth and to seek the truth and to stand on that truth. And we do it for our children, we do it for other people’s children, we do it even for children who are yet unborn because that’s how our community has survived from one generation to the next, and the next generation to the next.
When the data indicates, as it does right now, that this generation of young Black children will be the first in the history of this nation to not do as well as their parents have done, something is wrong. It’s time for us to do everything we can to arrest that development.
So ultimately, it’s not about the president; it’s not even about the presidency. It’s about what kind of nation we’re going to be, what kind of people are we going to be. Are we going to let poverty threaten our very democracy as the gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen, this gap between the rich and the rest of us? Poverty is not just threatening our democracy; it’s now threatening our national security. And our people are the one’s catching the most hell.
So the NAACP in this moment have got to recommit yourselves. Dr. Brown, you and your team and this organization here and all across the country, we have to recommit ourselves as never before. Socrates said the un-examined life ain’t even worth living. We’ve got to examine our lives. What kind of lives are we living? What kinds of legacies are we leaving? And what are we going to do in this moment to turn the tide against what the evidence appears to be telling us into the future?
Cowardice asks, is it safe? Expediency asks, is it politic? Vanity asks, is it popular? But conscience asks, is it right? And every now and then we must take positions that are neither safe, popular, politic or convenient. We do it because our conscience tells us that it’s right.
From his celebrated conversations with world figures to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders, as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change. Smiley is currently the host of the late night television talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from Public Radio International (PRI). Contact Tavis via The Smiley Group, 4434 Crenshaw Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90043, (323) 290-4690 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This speech was transcribed by Adrian McKinney.