In the 13th Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, television and radio personality Tavis Smiley urged a mostly full Salomon 101 to push harder for the civil rights changes that King advocated.
Smiley, who hosts a talk show on PBS, opened his lecture by calling King "the greatest American we have ever produced." King's legacy is important, he said, because "the only weapon that Martin ever used was love." King worked hard during his life to promote the values of love and speak honestly about problems, which cost him his popularity and his life, Smiley added.
He acknowledged that his own position as a talk show host and the presence of an African-American as president of an Ivy League university — a reference to President Ruth Simmons — represent progress for civil rights. But, he added, "Martin died for more than just this."
Though Smiley agreed that President Barack Obama's election was a testament to racial progress since King's era, Smiley criticized Obama for ignoring the problems of everyday people. While the election of Obama signals that the country is less racist than it was, the idea that it is now post-racial is "nonsense," he said.
He said he thought Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which began with a reference to King and continued on with a justification of some wars, diminished King's legacy, adding that this was a "dangerous, dangerous thing to do" on the world stage.
The Obama administration's decisions to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan and to spend billions of dollars supporting banks also drew fire from Smiley. In a joke that drew many laughs from the audience, Smiley said Obama's campaign song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," was addressed to Wall Street because the financial sector was getting all the money.
Smiley did qualify his criticism of the president by saying that he "couldn't have been happier" when Obama was elected and that he will remember the moment for the rest of his life. But people have to hold Obama accountable and "have the courage to correct him when he's wrong," he said.
"I want Barack Obama to be a great president," Smiley said. "I believe he can be a great president, but great presidents are not born — they have to be made."
Presidents who have advanced civil rights, such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, have needed someone to push them to do so, he said. African-Americans, and everyone else, must push Obama more, he said. It would be "tragic" for Obama to be a one-term president, he added.
"Too many people have worked too hard for this to be a failed presidency," Smiley said.
Smiley said he wants to show people that Obama is not the fulfillment of King's dream. He's "a wonderful down payment on the dream," he said.
He called out politicians and leaders for being more concerned with power than truth.
"We don't like to wrestle with the fact that every empire in history has at some point fallen," Smiley said. He added that the U.S. could face that fate if it does not address the problems of extreme poverty and increasing militarism.
Some in the audience greatly appreciated Smiley's remarks.
Mariam Amin '11.5 said the "incredibly honest" talk from Smiley made her take a closer look at herself and praised his constructive criticism. She said the talk was "totally relevant … to Americans as a whole."
Malika Ali '09, a college guide at the Swearer Center for Public Service, called the lecture "incredibly brilliant" and Smiley "courageous."
Jason Becker '09 GS called the lecture "powerful," adding that it "pointed toward the disconnect between the way that people participate in our society and the way you create action."