Tavis Smiley   1 comment


Tavis Smiley (pronounced /ˈtævɨs/; born September 13, 1964) is a talk show host, author, liberal political commentator, entrepreneur, advocate and philanthropist. Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi and grew up in Kokomo, Indiana. After attending Indiana University, he worked during the late 1980s as an aide to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. Smiley became a radio commentator in 1991, and starting in 1996 he hosted the talk show BET Talk (later renamed BET Tonight) on BET. Controversially, after Smiley sold an exclusive interview of Sara Jane Olson to ABC News in 2001, BET declined to renew Smiley’s contract that year. Smiley then began hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR from 2002 to 2004 and currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS on the weekdays and “The Tavis Smiley Show” from PRI. Most recently, he and close friend Dr. Cornel West have joined forces for their own radio talk show, “Smiley & West”. They were featured together interviewing musician Bill Withers in the 2009 documentary film Still Bill.

Early years

Tavis Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, the son of Joyce Marie Roberts, a single mother who first became pregnant at age 18.[1] On September 13, 1966, just shy of his second birthday, his mother married Emory Garnell Smiley, a non-commisioned officer in the U.S. Air Force.[2] It would not be until a few years later that Tavis would learn the identity of his biological father, whom he identifies in his autobiography, What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America only as “T.”[3]

His family soon moved to Indiana because his stepfather had been transferred to Grissom Air Force Base near Peru, Indiana. Upon arriving in Indiana, the Smiley family took up residence in a crowded mobile home in the small town of Bunker Hill, Indiana.[4] Smiley’s immediate family size was increased following the homicide of his aunt, whose death left five children with no stable home. Smiley’s parents agreed to take in and raise their five orphaned nieces and nephews. Joyce and her husband also had eight children of their own over the years, resulting at one point in 13 children and Mr. and Mrs. Smiley all living in the trailer-home. Smiley’s mother was a very religious person, and the family attended the local New Bethel Tabernacle Church, part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.[5] The Smiley children were forbidden from listening to secular music at home and going to the movie theater and could watch television shows that their parents felt were family-friendly.[6] When Tavis Smiley was in seventh grade, New Bethel pastor Elder Rufus Mills accused Tavis and his siblings of “running wild, disobeying their teacher, disrespecting their teacher, disrespecting the sanctity of this building, and mocking the holy message being taught” during Sunday School.[7] According to Smiley’s account of the incident, Smiley’s Sunday School teacher became more confused as she was asking questions about the Book of John, and while other students “responded by giggling and acting a little unruly,” he and his sister Phyllis “remained quiet”.[8] Garnell whipped Tavis and Phyllis with an extension cord, wounding the two children.[9] The next day at school, administrators found out about the children’s injuries.[10] The local newspaper in Kokomo reported on the beating and the legal proceedings against Garnell, and Tavis and Phyllis were sent to foster care temporarily,[11] Garnell told his children that the judge decided that he had “overreacted” and found he and Joyce as “concerned parents who were completely involved in our children’s lives and well-being”.[12]

Smiley became interested in politics at age 13 after attending a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Birch Bayh.[5] At Maconaquah High School in Bunker Hill, Indiana, a school that Smiley described as “98 percent white”,[13] Smiley was active in student council and the debate team, even though his parents were “skeptical of all non-church extracurricular activities.”[14]

College and political career

In 1982, Smiley enrolled in Indiana University Bloomington (IU). Because Smiley’s parents refused to complete financial aid papers, Smiley entered Indiana University with only $50 and a small suitcase.[15] Administrators let Smiley complete the paperwork to become a full-time student.[16] The summer after his freshman year, Smiley worked, attended summer classes, and lived off campus with Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball players, then being coached by Bobby Knight.[17] Smiley was accepted into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity during his sophomore year and became business manager of his dormitory, a member of the student senate, and director of minority affairs.[18] After his friend Denver Smith was killed by Indiana police officers who claimed to have acted in self-defense, Smiley helped lead protests to defend Smith, whom he believed had been wrongfully killed.[19] Those protests led Smiley to a work-study internship at the office of Bloomington mayor Tomilea Allison. Being paid $5 an hour, Smiley wrote letters to local residents, researched for Mayor Allison, and helped write positions on local issues. Mayor Allison rebuked Smiley for padding his time sheets and had Smiley work off the extra hours without pay.[20] During his first semester of junior year, Smiley was under academic probation and blamed his extracurricular activities for interfering with his studies.[21] When Smiley visited Los Angeles to attend a national student leaders’ convention, the cousin of his roommate introduced Smiley to football star Jim Brown. Brown introduced Smiley to fellow football player George Hughley, who worked for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and connected Smiley to Mayor Bradley’s staff.[22] Every week since meeting Bradley’s staff, Smiley wrote a letter to the mayor’s office asking for an internship and once personally flew to Los Angeles to appeal. However, by summertime he received a letter from the city stating that all internship positions were filled.[23] Smiley then handwrote a letter to the mayor that he said represented his feeling “from the heart”, and Bradley called Smiley to say that he had a position available for Smiley.[24] As the internship was unpaid but counted for college credit, the Bloomington Community Progress Council funded Smiley with $5,000 for living expenses in Los Angeles, and Brown allowed Smiley to live as a houseguest during September 1985. Starting the next month, Smiley lived in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house in the University of Southern California. At City Hall, Smiley worked at the Office of Youth Development on the 22nd floor.[25]

Twice, Smiley considered quitting college, first during junior year,[26] and then after finishing his internship with Mayor Bradley. Bradley successfully convinced Smiley to return to college, and Smiley did.[27] Smiley took the LSAT twice, as he was considering attending Harvard Law School.[28] However, in his senior year, he failed a test in a computer class after being accused of copying another student’s, so he failed that class and several others and lacked nine hours of credits and thus did not graduate from IU.[29] Following a hiring freeze by the government of Los Angeles, Smiley served as an aide to Mayor Bradley until 1990.[30] A 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times identified Smiley as “a Bradley administrative assistant who works in South Los Angeles.”[31] In 2003, Smiley officially received his degree from Indiana University in public affairs.[32]

 Radio and television career

Campaigning for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1991 against incumbent Ruth Galanter, Smiley finished fourth among 15 candidates. Smiley became a radio commentator, broadcasting one-minute daily radio segments called The Smiley Report on KGFJ radio.[5] With Ruben Navarrette, Jr., Smiley co-hosted a local talk show in Los Angeles where his strongly held views on race and politics, combined with his arguments regarding the impact of institutional racism and substandard educational and economic opportunities for inner-city black youth, earned him attention on the Los Angeles Times. His commentaries focused on local and national current-affairs issues affecting the African-American community.[33] For six months, Smiley worked on a community news program on a local cable network and spent six more months working on television in Montreal.[34]

In 1996, Smiley became a frequent commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, a nationally syndicated radio show broadcast on black and urban stations in the United States.[35] He developed a friendship with host Joyner; together they began hosting annual town hall meetings beginning in 2000 called “The State of the Black Union” which were aired live on the C-SPAN cable television network. These town hall meetings each focused on a specific topic affecting the African-American community, featuring a panel of African-American leaders, educators, and professionals assembled before an audience to discuss problems related to the forum’s topic, as well as potential solutions.[36] Smiley also used his commentator status on Joyner’s radio show to launch several advocacy campaigns to highlight discriminatory practices in the media and government and to rally support for causes such as the awarding of a Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Smiley also began building a national reputation as a political commentator with numerous appearances on political discussion shows on MSNBC, ABC, and CNN.

Also in 1996, Smiley began hosting and executive producing BET Tonight (originally BET Talk when it first premiered), a public affairs discussion show on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network. Smiley interviewed major political figures and celebrities and discussed topics ranging from racial profiling and police brutality to R&B music and Hollywood gossip. Smiley hosted BET Tonight until 2001, when in a controversial move, the network announced that Smiley’s contract would not be renewed. This sparked an angry response from Joyner, who sought to rally his radio audience to protest BET’s decision. Robert L. Johnson, founder of BET, defended the decision, stating that Smiley had been fired because he had sold an exclusive interview to ABC News without first offering the story to BET, even though Smiley’s contract with BET did not require him to do so. Smiley countered with the assertion that he had offered the story — an interview with Sara Jane Olson, an alleged former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army — to CBS, which, along with BET, was owned by Viacom. Smiley ultimately sold the interview to rival network ABC, he said, only after CBS passed on the interview, and suggested that his firing was payback for the publicity he gained as a result of providing an exclusive interview to ABC.[37] Ultimately BET and Viacom did not reverse their decision to terminate Smiley’s contract.

Smiley was then offered a chance to host a radio talk show on National Public Radio. He served as host of The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR until December 2004 when he announced that he would be leaving his NPR show, citing the network’s inability to reach a more diverse audience.[38] Smiley launched a weekly version of his radio program The Tavis Smiley Show on April 29, 2005, distributed by NPR rival Public Radio International. On October 1, 2010, Tavis Smiley turned the second hour of his PRI program into Smiley & West co-hosted by his longtime collaborator Dr. Cornel West. Smiley also hosts Tavis Smiley, a late night talk show televised on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network and produced in association with WNET in New York.

Smiley moderated two live presidential candidate forums in 2007: a Democratic forum on June 28 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.,[39] and a Republican forum on September 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.[40]

Smiley appears on the Democracy Now! show.[41]

Controversy over Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

On April 11, 2008, Tavis Smiley announced that he would resign in June 2008 as a commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He cited fatigue and a busy schedule in a personal call to Joyner. However Joyner—referring to several commentaries in which Smiley was critical of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama—indicated otherwise on his program, stating: “The real reason is that he can’t take the hate he’s been getting regarding the Barack issue—hate from the black people that he loves so much.”[42] Prior to the public controversy and being elected President, Obama had been on Smiley’s PBS show six times.

 The Covenant with Black America

In March 2006, The Smiley Group and Third World Press published The Covenant with Black America, a collection of essays by black scholars and professionals edited by Smiley. The book covers topics ranging from education to healthcare as discussed in several “State of the Black Union” forums.

Described by the publisher as a national plan of action to address the primary concerns of African-Americans related to social and economic disparities but seen by others as a self-promoting rehash of old ideas, the book became the first non-fiction book by a Black-owned publisher to be listed as the number-one non-fiction paperback in America by The New York Times Best Seller list.

 Awards and contributions

Smiley was honored with the NAACP Image Award for best news, talk, or information series for three consecutive years (1997–99) for his work on BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley.

Smiley’s advocacy efforts have earned him numerous awards and recognitions including the recipient of the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award from the National Association of Minorities in Communications.

In 1999, he founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which funds programs that develop young leaders in the black community. Since its inception, more than 6,000 young people have participated in the foundation’s Youth to Leaders Training workshops and conferences.

His communications company, The Smiley Group, Inc., serves as the holding company for various enterprises encompassing broadcast and print media, lecturers, symposiums, and the Internet.

In 1994, Time named him one of America’s 50 Most Promising Young Leaders.[43] Time would later honor him in 2009 as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” In May 2007, Smiley gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana. In May 2008, he gave the commencement address at Connecticut College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. In May 2009, Smiley was awarded an honorary doctorate at Langston University after giving the commencement address there.

On December 12, 2008, Smiley received the Du Bois Medal from Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

He would also be awarded the 2009 Interdependence Day Prize from Demos in Istanbul, Turkey.

Indiana University recently honored Smiley by naming the atrium of its School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) building, The Tavis Smiley Atrium.

Smiley would be named No. 2 change agent in the field of media behind Oprah Winfrey in EBONY magazine’s POWER 150 list.

Posted February 19, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Uncategorized

One response to “Tavis Smiley

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