By Jesse Washington
After 10 years, Tavis Smiley is ending his annual State of the Black Union conference, which spawned best-selling books and his critical stance toward President Barack Obama.
The activist and PBS host said last Wednesday that he needs time to focus on other projects, such as his four prime-time specials this year and his book company, which recently announced plans to publish the musician R. Kelly’s memoir.
Smiley also said that, unlike a decade ago, black issues now are being addressed by numerous other media outlets, commentators and bloggers.
The State of the Black Union “doesn’t have the premium that it used to have – and that’s a good thing,” Smiley told The Associated Press.
Smiley, who hosts a nightly half-hour talk show on PBS, said he was inspired to start the conference because black issues were rarely addressed in the president’s State of the Union speech or the national media.
The conference, which took place each February, was broadcast on C-SPAN and averaged 7,000 to 10,000 participants each year as it traveled to various cities. It drew almost 20,000 people in Jamestown, Va., in 2007, when it marked the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves in North America.
Smiley said money was not a factor in ending the series – which cost “well over seven figures” each year and was free to the public – because Exxon Mobil and Nationwide Insurance had committed to major sponsorship deals in 2010.
Wells Fargo was a major sponsor last year, which led to some criticism of Smiley after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit accusing Wells Fargo of pushing blacks into high-interest mortgage loans while whites with the same qualifications got lower rates. Smiley said he ended his deal with Wells Fargo as soon as the lawsuit was filed.
Wells Fargo & Co. has denied race played any role in how it did business.
Over the years, the State of the Black Union conference became a major event, drawing a wide range of influential speakers such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Johnnie Cochran, Nikki Giovanni, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Magic Johnson.
The 2005 conference generated the idea for the book “Covenant with Black America,” about issues facing the black community. One of Smiley’s fondest State of the Black Union memories is holding the book aloft at the 2006 event and watching thousands of people in the audience do the same – “just the fact that we did what we said we were going to do.”
The book became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller. Smiley published two more books in the series, which focused on putting the “Covenant” into action and then on holding politicians accountable.
That led to Smiley’s critical stance toward Obama because of the presidential candidate’s insistence that the best way to help blacks was improving the entire economy, rather than specific policies targeting black problems.
Obama said he was too busy campaigning to attend the 2008 State of the Black Union event. Clinton was the only presidential candidate there.
Smiley endured much criticism as a result of his position on Obama, but the new president spoke to Smiley’s gathering by satellite from the White House in February 2009. That was Smiley’s other favorite memory.
“That the president of the United States felt compelled to join us live to acknowledge the power of this symposium over 10 years, and what it had accomplished, raising the kind of issues that helped him get elected – that was significant,” Smiley said.