Tavis Smiley says democracy depends on King's moral vision

    “Are we being Kingian in our lives?” That’s the question popular TV and radio host Tavis Smiley raised throughout his keynote address for Northwestern’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration.

    Smiley’s address was just one part of Northwestern’s day of programming honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King. The event, held at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall Monday afternoon, began with performances by the Northwestern Community Ensemble gospel choir and Jazz Ensemble. Provost Daniel Linzer gave the welcoming remarks and encouraged the audience, especially in light of the recent tragedy in Tucson, to “try to make today and tomorrow better for all of us.”

    ASG President Claire Lew introduced Smiley, host of talk shows on PBS and Public Radio International. He began his speech asking the audience to think about the types of legacies they are leaving behind, and to consider the life of the real Dr. King.

    “If you celebrate Martin because he was a dreamer and that’s all you get out of it, then you’ve missed the point,” Smiley said.

    In an on-stage interview after the speech, Smiley described King’s profound affect on his life. As a boy, Smiley would constantly listen to recordings of King’s speeches. “At the age of 13, he got in my spirit and got in my soul,” Smiley said. “There is no aspect of my life that is not, has not been affected by Dr. King.”

    Smiley said most people think King only gave one speech in his life — the legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. He blamed this partly on the media for only playing sound bites of this and the speech King gave a day before his death on April 4, 1968. It is this lack of truth and accountability that is keeping the nation from achieving freedom, Smiley said.

    “The more we face the truth, the more we confess the truth, the freer we will be,” Smiley said. “It is the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak.”

    Smiley defined love as “Everybody is worthy, just because.” He passionately listed fundamental rights he believes every American should have, such as access to healthcare and a job with a living wage. Each item was met with roaring applause from the crowd.

    Towards the end of his life, King lacked the support of his followers, yet he is revered today because he is a “dead martyr,” Smiley said. “Martin died on that balcony thinking everybody hated him,” Smiley said. “Here we are today celebrating Dr. King.”

    Smiley ended his keynote address with the warning that if the country does not raise the level of public discourse and begin to tell the truth, the future of the United States will be in jeopardy. The future of democracy rests with following King’s principles, Smiley said.

    “If more of us don’t start to act Kingian in our lives, we will lose this nation,” Smiley said.


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