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Tavis Smiley
Born Tavis Roberts
September 13, 1964 (1964-09-13) (age 45)
Gulfport, Mississippi
United States
Education Indiana University
Occupation Talk show host
Ethnicity African-American
Religious belief(s) Christian
Notable credit(s) Tavis Smiley host
The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI (radio) host
BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley host
Official website

Tavis Smiley (born September 13, 1964) is an American talk show host, author, political commentator, entrepreneur, advocate and philanthropist.




Early years

Tavis Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, the son of Joyce Marie Roberts, a single mother. On September 3, 1966, just shy of his second birthday, his mother married Emory Garnell Smiley, a non-commisioned officer.[1] It would not be until a few years later that Tavis would learn the identity of his biological father, which he identifies in his autobiography, What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America as only "T."[2]

His family soon moved to Indiana because his stepfather had been transferred to Grissom Air Force Base near Peru, Indiana. Upon arriving in Indiana, the Smiley family took up residence in a crowded mobile home in the small town of Bunker Hill, Indiana. Smiley's immediate family size was increased following the homicide of his aunt whose death left five children with no stable home. Smiley's parents agreed to take in and raise their five orphaned nieces and nephews. Joyce and her husband also had eight children of their own over the years, resulting at one point in 13 kids and Mr. and Mrs. Smiley all living in the trailer-home (Smiley 29). Smiley's mother was a very religious person and the Pentecostal Apostolic church was central in the lives of the Smiley family. Tavis would later say that the values he learned as a child helped to shape his ethics and values as an adult (LaRue 5).

Upon graduation from Maconaquah High School in 1982, Smiley attended Indiana University, where he was involved in student government, was accepted into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and participated in the first of many political and social advocacy campaigns in which he would engage in the course of his career when his friend was killed by Indiana police officers who claimed to have acted in self-defense.[3] Smiley helped lead protests to defend his friend, whom he believed had been wrongfully killed. After reconsidering a decision to drop out of college at the end of his junior year, he interned as an aide to Tom Bradley, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles. He returned to Indiana University after the internship, receiving his bachelor's degree in law and public policy in 1986. Upon graduation, he served as an aide to Mayor Bradley until 1990.

Radio and television career

Following an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1991, Smiley became a radio commentator, broadcasting one-minute daily radio segments, called The Smiley Report, on a Los Angeles urban radio station. His commentaries focused on local and national current-affairs issues affecting the African-American community. Chicago-based journalist Ronald E. Childs first introduced Smiley to a national audience, penning an article on him in Ebony Man magazine. Smiley co-hosted a local talk show in Los Angeles where his strongly held views on race and politics, combined with his arguments regarding the impact of institutional racism and substandard educational and economic opportunities for inner-city black youth, earned him attention from other national media outlets such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Time.

In 1996, Smiley became a frequent commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, a nationally syndicated radio show broadcast on black and urban stations in the United States. He developed a friendship with host Joyner; together they began hosting annual town hall meetings beginning in 2000 called "The State of the Black Union" which were aired live on the C-SPAN cable television network. These town hall meetings each focused on a specific topic affecting the African-American community, featuring a panel of African-American leaders, educators, and professionals assembled before an audience to discuss problems related to the forum's topic, as well as potential solutions. Smiley also used his commentator status on Joyner's radio show to launch several advocacy campaigns to highlight discriminatory practices in the media and government and to rally support for causes such as the awarding of a Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Smiley also began building a national reputation as a political commentator with numerous appearances on political discussion shows on MSNBC, ABC, and CNN.

Also in 1996, Smiley began hosting and executive producing BET Tonight (originally BET Talk when it first premiered), a public affairs discussion show on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network. Smiley interviewed major political figures and celebrities and discussed topics ranging from racial profiling and police brutality to R&B music and Hollywood gossip. Smiley hosted BET Tonight until 2001, when in a controversial move, the network announced that Smiley's contract would not be renewed. This sparked an angry response from Joyner, who sought to rally his radio audience to protest BET's decision. Robert L. Johnson, founder of BET, defended the decision, stating that Smiley had been fired because he had sold an exclusive interview to ABC News without first offering the story to BET, even though Smiley's contract with BET did not require him to do so. Smiley countered with the assertion that he had offered the story — an interview with Sara Jane Olson, an alleged former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army — to CBS, which, along with BET, was owned by Viacom. Smiley ultimately sold the interview to rival network ABC, he said, only after CBS passed on the interview, and suggested that his firing was payback for the publicity he gained as a result of providing an exclusive interview to ABC.[4] Ultimately BET and Viacom did not reverse their decision to terminate Smiley's contract.

Smiley was then offered a chance to host a radio talk show on National Public Radio. He served as host of The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR until December 2004 when he announced that he would be leaving his NPR show, citing the network's inability to reach a more diverse audience.[5] Smiley currently hosts Tavis Smiley, a late night talk show televised on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network. He also hosts a similar, weekly, two-hour version on Public Radio International (PRI) radio stations.

PBS announced in February 2007 that Smiley would moderate two live presidential forums in 2007: a Democratic forum on June 28 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a Republican forum on September 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.[6]

Controversy over Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

On April 11, 2008, Tavis Smiley announced that he would resign in June 2008 as a commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He cited fatigue and a busy schedule in a personal call to Joyner. However Joyner—referring to several commentaries in which Smiley was critical of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama -- indicated otherwise on his program, stating: "The real reason is that he can't take the hate he's been getting regarding the Barack issue -- hate from the black people that he loves so much."[7] Smiley has had Obama on his PBS show six times.

The Covenant with Black America

In March 2006, The Smiley Group and Third World Press published The Covenant with Black America, a collection of essays by black scholars and professionals edited by Smiley. The book covers topics ranging from education to healthcare as discussed in several "State of the Black Union" forums.

Described by the publisher as a national plan of action to address the primary concerns of African-Americans related to social and economic disparities but seen by others as a self-promoting rehash of old ideas, the book became the first non-fiction book by a Black-owned publisher to be listed as the number-one non-fiction paperback in America by the New York Times Best-Seller List.

Awards and contributions

Smiley was honored with the NAACP Image Award for best news, talk, or information series for three consecutive years (1997-99) for his work on BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley.

Smiley's advocacy efforts have earned him numerous awards and recognitions including the recipient of the Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award from the National Association of Minorities in Communications.

In 1999, he founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which funds programs that develop young leaders in the black community. Since its inception, more than 6,000 young people have participated in the foundation's Youth to Leaders Training workshops and conferences.

His communications company, The Smiley Group, Inc., is dedicated to supporting human rights and related empowerment issues and serves as the holding company for various enterprises encompassing broadcast and print media, lecturers, symposiums, and the Internet.

In 1994, Time named him one of America's 50 Most Promising Young Leaders.[8] In May 2007, Smiley gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana. In May 2008, he gave the commencement address at Connecticut College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. In May 2009, Smiley was awarded an honorary doctorate at Langston University after giving the commencement address there.

On December 12, 2008, Smiley received the Du Bois Medal from Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Smiley came full circle when in 2009 Time honored him as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

He would also be awarded the 2009 Interdependence Day Prize from Demos in Istanbul, Turkey.

Indiana University recently honored Smiley by naming the atrium of its School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) building, The Tavis Smiley Atrium.

Smiley would be named No. 2 change agent in the field of media behind Oprah Winfrey in EBONY magazine's POWER 150 list.


  • Doing What's Right: How to Fight for What You Believe—And Make a Difference (ISBN 0-385-49931-0)
  • Hard Left (ISBN 0-385-48404-6)
  • Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing, and Hope from Black America (ISBN 0-385-72169-2)
  • How to Make Black America Better: Leading African Americans Speak Out (ISBN 0-385-72087-4)
  • On Air:The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show (ISBN 1-890194-33-6)
  • The Covenant with Black America (ISBN 0-88378-277-4)
  • What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America (ISBN 13: 978-0-385-50516-1; ISBN 10:0-388-50516-7)
  • Accountable: Making America As Good As Its Promise


  1. ^ "Harrison - Guflport District, MS". Marriage License Link. Harrison County Mississippi. 1997-01-09. Retrieved 2009-12-27.  
  2. ^ Smiley, Tavis; David Ritz (2008). What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America. New York, New York: Anchor Books. pp. 49-50. ISBN 0385721722.  
  3. ^ "About Tavis Smiley"
  4. ^ Smiley's termination from BET
  5. ^ 10 Questions For Tavis Smiley - Time magazine
  6. ^ "PBS' Tavis Smiley to Moderate Presidential Forums". Associated Press, February 9, 2007.
  7. ^ Tavis Smiley Will Cut Ties With Joyner Radio Show, Washington Post, Saturday, April 12, 2008; Page C01
  8. ^ Tavis Smiley, Hard Left, page 11

Further reading

  • LaRue, William. "Tavis Smiley: NPR Host Brings Latenight Talk to PBS." Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, 1 February 2004, STARS section, pp. 4-6.
  • Slade, Scott. "Author Issues Wakeup Call." Kokomo (IN) Tribune, 20 June 1996, p. 7.
  • Smiley, Tavis. What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America. Doubleday, 2006.

External links


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