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Smiley's passion, humor engage crowd

Tavis Smiley is a successful TV interview host, radio broadcaster and author.

On Friday, he showed he's also a powerful public speaker.

With the cadences of a preacher and the passion of a crusader, Smiley spoke at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, stressing personal commitment to right societal wrongs and the need for a new generation of African-American leadership.

Smiley was the keynote speaker for the school's 30th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Event, and part of the school's Distinguished Speakers Series.

The 75-minute prepared talk, followed by questions from the audience, was interrupted repeatedly with applause and audience give-and-take. The speaker often peppered his remarks with humor to make a more serious point or, in the case of his entrance, to literally wake people up.

Smiley, 41, bounded on stage after a nearly 20-minute introduction by UB professor James Pappas had people stirring in their seats.

"They say the shorter the introduction, the more important you are," Smiley ad-libbed to a howling response.

Speaking about Black History Month, the host of a TV show on PBS and a syndicated radio show said he wondered how it landed in "the shortest, coldest and darkest month" of the year.

Smiley stressed the need to work hard and strive toward greatness, directing many of his remarks to college students who appeared to be largely absent from the nearly full 1,700-seat auditorium. He noted the next black leaders will be the first who didn't live under slavery or legal segregation.

While acknowledging progress for blacks in America, Smiley said some residue from the past remains very much stuck in the present.

"Racism is still the most intractable issue in America. The operable phrase is still right here and right now," Smiley said.

He cited economic statistics showing blacks lagging far behind whites. "We are, economically speaking, still three-fifths of a person," said Smiley, referring to the 1787 decision that counted slaves as less than a whole person in determining representation for Southern states in Congress.

Smiley reflected on what he -- as well as most blacks and a minority of whites, judging by polls -- considered the racist mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina evacuation by the Bush administration. And he discussed what he called blatantly racist immigration policies as he compared more lenient policies for asylum-seeking Cubans than for Haitians fleeing far more perilous conditions.

Punctuating his remarks with some from the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Smiley closed by saying it was incumbent to "recommit ourselves to fight for the things we believe in."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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