In an evening punctuated by standing ovations and thunderous applause, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West brought their national crusade for equality and compassion to Radford University on Wednesday, captivating a near-capacity crowd in Bondurant Auditorium for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Program.
“All of us can benefit from remembering Dr. King,” RU President Penelope Kyle said in her introductory remarks. “At Radford we strive to make sure all people have a voice, all people feel valued, and all people are treated with dignity and respect.”
An annual event on campus since 2007, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Program has hosted several influential African-American speakers, including political commentator Marc Lamont Hill and gymnast Dominique Dawes. This year for the first time, an entire week of events at RU is dedicated to celebrating the legacy of King, Kyle said.
Smiley and West, who co-authored “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto,” published in 2012, are currently on their fourth national speaking tour to bring the issue of poverty in America to the forefront in national discourse.
Smiley, who spoke first Wednesday, said King is remembered most for touchstone events like the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1956 or the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Not as well recognized was his mission to better the situation of the nation’s poor.
“Dr. King paid a heavy price in trying to focus on poverty,” Smiley said. “Ultimately, he paid with his life.”
Since King’s death, America has actually lost ground in the fight against poverty, Smiley said, citing studies showing that more Americans are either poor or near poverty than in the 1960s. He challenged the RU community, especially the students, to get involved and make their voices heard.
“Young folks make the difference,” he said. “Young folks made the difference in the South during the Civil Rights movement, in South Africa during Apartheid, in Tiananmen Square and in Tunisia and Egypt. When you decide to get involved, you can make the difference.”
West began by recognizing and thanking groups who shared the evening’s program: RU’s Deliverance Gospel Choir leading the audience in the beloved James Weldon Johnson hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and a rousing step performance in King’s honor by the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.
“Brother Martin was part of a tradition, a community, a family, a church and a heritage,” West said. “From when he was a child, he was loved, and that’s the love he gave back.”
West devoted much of his speech to the concepts of love and service, and their apparent absence from modern discourse on the poor and disenfranchised in America. Poverty is a crime against humanity, and its persistence is morally obscene and spiritually profane, West said. Like Smiley, he called the Radford community to action.
“You don’t have to be on this stage to do great things if you have the courage to serve and love when no one is looking,” he said. “Everyone is meant to do something. Find what you are here to do, and do it.”
Smiley began his career as a broadcaster in Los Angeles in 1991. Since then he has become a noted figure on both radio and television. He currently hosts “The Tavis Smiley Show” on Public Radio International and “Tavis Smiley” on PBS, and is the first American to host signature talks shows simultaneously on public television and public radio.
West, a prominent educator and author, holds degrees from Harvard and Princeton universities. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Yale University, Harvard and the University of Paris. The author of 19 books, including “Race Matters,” “Democracy Matters” and “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,” he has also edited 13 books and released three spoken-word albums.
Wednesday’s event was sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee, the RU Scholar-Citizen Initiative, R-SPaCE, the Club Programming Committee, the Diversity Awareness Programming Board, the Student Government Association, Men of Standards, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.