Smiley: The future of America lies with King’s legacy

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Tavis Smiley speaks to the gathering at Friday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Smiley said he aimed to “unsettle” and “rattle” audience members into action to end economic disparity in America.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the triple threat crippling the American economy — racism, poverty and militarism — is also jeopardizing our democracy.

Tavis Smiley reiterated this claim, and argued that the future of our democracy lies in the legacy left by King. The philanthropist and host of “Tavis Smiley” on PBS spoke on the topic “Re-examining Assumptions about Poverty in America” at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. This was the last lecture on Week Two’s theme, “With Economic Justice for All.”

Despite the Fourth of July holiday and the patriotism involved, Smiley urged the audience to be honest about the state of the American economy.

The state of the Union is not strong, he said, and anyone who says otherwise is buying into an idea of American exceptionalism. 

One out of two United States citizens is in or near a state of poverty, he said. The richest 400 Americans have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. Smiley said these numbers are unsustainable, and they’re threatening both our democracy and our national security.

“We all want to live in a nation that will one day be as good as its promise,” he said, but true freedom means economic freedom, and right now, not all are free.

Smiley said in order for America to make good on that promise, we need to take care of the triple threat encroaching on our people.

It’s no secret King was attacking the issue of racism in the United States in the 1960s. While it doesn’t exist in the same form today, Smiley said Americans are still struggling with issues of diversity and inclusion for all citizens.

African-American income levels are still three-fifths the amount of whites. Even with a black sitting president, Smiley said, African-Americans have lost ground in every single category of leading economic indicators during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Those facts don’t discredit the work Obama has done since taking office, Smiley said. He just wasn’t pushed enough by his cabinet — or the American people — to make bold changes in these problem areas.

“Great presidents aren’t born. They’re made,” Smiley said. “They have to be pushed, ushered, held accountable until they become great. Because left to their own devices, if they aren’t pushed, they end up being garden-variety politicians and not statesmen. They end up at best being transactional, but not transformative, and we need more than a transactional president.”

We also need the next presidential election to focus on poverty, Smiley said. It’s one of the biggest issues in the United States, and yet it’s widely ignored by politicians. Even during debates, questions concerning poverty are overtly missing from the table. 

King was about to start his Poor People’s Campaign, bringing the issue of poverty to the government’s lawn, when he was assassinated. In the year before that, King had been issuing statements against U.S. military policies, calling America the most violent nation in the world in his speech “A Time to Break Silence.”

Smiley said the majority of the country turned its back on King after he expressed his anti-war sentiments, but what King understood was that our citizens collectively struggle when we’re at war. 

“War is the enemy of the poor,” Smiley said, echoing the beliefs of King, and said that when the nation’s resources go toward the war effort and not to the people, it’s the poor who suffer the most. We might as well take the bombs we’re dropping in other countries and drop them in the heart of America’s ghettos, Smiley said.      

“We have to be able to critique our country in an earnest, honest, authentic way to help make her a better nation,” Smiley said.

If we do this, he said, we can eradicate King’s triple threat and instead focus on his three guiding principles: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people.