Tavis Smiley (/ˈtævɪs/; born September 13, 1964) is an American talk show host and author. Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, and grew up in Bunker Hill, Indiana. After attending Indiana University, he worked during the late 1980s as an aide to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. Smiley became a radio commentator in 1991 and, starting in 1996, he hosted the talk show BET Talk (later renamed BET Tonight) on Black Entertainment Television (BET). After Smiley sold an exclusive interview of Sara Jane Olson to ABC News in 2001, BET declined to renew his contract that year. Smiley then began hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on National Public Radio (NPR) (2002–04) and currently hosts Tavis Smiley on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on weekdays and The Tavis Smiley Show on Public Radio International (PRI). From 2010 to 2013, Smiley and Cornel West joined forces to host their own radio talk show, Smiley & West. They were featured together interviewing musician Bill Withers in the 2009 documentary film Still Bill. He is the new host of Tavis Talks on BlogTalkRadio's Tavis Smiley Network.
Tavis Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, the son of Joyce Marie Roberts, a single woman who first became pregnant at age 18. On September 13, 1966, his second birthday, his mother married Emory Garnell Smiley, a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force. A few years later Tavis learned the identity of his biological father, whom he identifies in his autobiography, What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America, only as "T".
Smiley's family soon moved to Indiana when his stepfather was transferred to Grissom Air Force Base near Peru, Indiana. On arriving in Indiana, the Smiley family took up residence in a three-bedroom mobile home in the small town of Bunker Hill, Indiana. The Smileys had three more children, and added four more after the murder of Joyce's sister. Initially, four of her five children were cared for by their grandmother (known as "Big Mama"), but ill health impaired her ability, and Joyce and Emory took them in. The trailer home sheltered thirteen, including Tavis and his seven brothers and two sisters and the three adults.
Smiley's mother was a very religious person, and the family attended the local New Bethel Tabernacle Church, part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. The Smiley children were forbidden from listening to secular music at home or going to the movie theater, and could watch only television shows their parents felt were family-friendly.
When he was in seventh grade, New Bethel pastor Elder Rufus Mills accused Smiley and his siblings of "running wild, disobeying their teacher, disrespecting their teacher, disrespecting the sanctity of this building, and mocking the holy message being taught" during Sunday School. According to Smiley's account of the incident, his Sunday School teacher became confused as she was answering questions about the Book of John, and other students "responded by giggling and acting a little unruly," although he and his sister Phyllis "remained quiet". Garnell whipped Tavis and Phyllis with an extension cord, wounding the two children. The next day at school, administrators found out about the children's injuries. The local newspaper in Kokomo, Indiana reported on the beating and the legal proceedings against Garnell; Tavis and Phyllis were sent to foster care temporarily. Garnell told his children that the judge decided that he had "overreacted" and found he and Joyce were "concerned parents who were completely involved in [our] children's lives and well-being".
Smiley became interested in politics at age 13 after attending a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Birch Bayh. At Maconaquah High School in Bunker Hill, Indiana, a school that Smiley described as "98 percent white," he was active in the student council and the debate team, even though his parents were "skeptical of all non-church extracurricular activities".
In 1982, Smiley enrolled at Indiana University Bloomington (IU). Because his parents refused to complete financial aid papers, Smiley entered the university with only $50 and a small suitcase. Administrators let Smiley complete the paperwork to become a full-time student. The summer after his first year, Smiley worked, attended summer classes, and lived off campus with Indiana Hoosiers men's basketball players, then being coached by Bob Knight. Smiley was accepted into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity during his second year, and became business manager of his dormitory, a member of the student senate, and director of minority affairs. After his friend Denver Smith was killed by Indiana police officers who claimed to have acted in self-defense, Smiley helped lead protests to defend Smith, who he believed had been wrongfully killed. Those protests led him to a work-study internship at the office of Bloomington Mayor Tomilea Allison, where he was paid $5 an hour. Smiley wrote letters to local residents, researched for Mayor Allison, and helped write position papers on local issues. In his autobiography, Smiley says that a deputy mayor caught him systematically adding extra hours to his time sheets, illegal behavior that could have seen him charged with a felony and expelled from college, but instead of pressing charges, Mayor Allison allowed him to work all of the hours for which he had already been paid, and did not tell other people what he had done.
During the first semester of his junior year, Smiley was under academic probation; he blamed his extracurricular activities for interfering with his studies. When Smiley visited Los Angeles to attend a national student leaders' convention, the cousin of his roommate introduced Smiley to football star Jim Brown. Brown introduced Smiley to fellow football player George Hughley, who worked for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and connected Smiley to Mayor Bradley's staff. Every week after meeting Bradley's staff, Smiley wrote a letter to the mayor's office asking for an internship, and once flew to Los Angeles to appeal. However, by summer he received a letter from the city stating that all internship positions were filled. Smiley then handwrote a letter to the mayor that he said represented his feeling "from the heart," and Bradley called Smiley to say that he had a position available for him. Although it counted for college credit, the internship was unpaid, so the Bloomington Community Progress Council funded Smiley with $5,000 for living expenses in Los Angeles, and Brown allowed Smiley to live as a houseguest in September 1985. Starting the following month, Smiley lived in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house at the University of Southern California. At City Hall, Smiley worked at the Office of Youth Development on the 22nd floor.
Smiley twice considered quitting college, first during his junior year, and then after finishing his internship with Mayor Bradley. Bradley successfully convinced Smiley to return to college. He took the LSAT twice because, he thought he "didn't do great the first time," and he "did a little better" the second time; he intended to apply to Harvard Law School. Instead, Smiley did not graduate from college at all, because he failed a required course in his senior year, and "did poorly in several other courses," which meant he could not complete his degree on time; rather than stay for an extra term, he chose to leave IU and move to Los Angeles, where he had been promised a job. Following a hiring freeze by the government of Los Angeles, Smiley served as an aide to Mayor Bradley until 1990. A 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times identified Smiley as "a Bradley administrative assistant who works in South Los Angeles". In 2003, Smiley officially received his degree from Indiana University in public affairs.
Campaigning for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1991 against incumbent Ruth Galanter, Smiley finished fourth among 15 candidates. He became a radio commentator, broadcasting one-minute daily radio segments called The Smiley Report on KGFJ radio. With Ruben Navarrette, Jr., 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 at the Los Angeles Times. His commentaries focused on local and national current-affairs issues affecting the African-American community. For six months, Smiley worked on a community news program on a local cable network, and spent six more months working on television in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
In 1996, Smiley became a frequent commentator to 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.
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. He 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. Ultimately BET and Viacom did not reverse their decision to terminate Smiley's contract.
In 2000, they began hosting annual town hall meetings called "The State of the Black Union," which were aired live on the C-SPAN cable television network. Each of these town hall meetings 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.
Smiley was then offered a chance to host a radio talk show on National Public Radio (NPR). He served as host of The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR until December 2004 when he announced that he would be leaving his show, citing the network's inability to reach a more diverse audience. Smiley launched a weekly version of his radio program The Tavis Smiley Show on April 29, 2005, distributed by NPR rival Public Radio International (PRI). On October 1, 2010, Tavis Smiley turned the second hour of his PRI program into Smiley & West co-hosted by his longtime collaborator Dr. Cornel West. The show lasted until December 2013. Smiley also hosts Tavis Smiley, a late night talk show televised on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network and produced in association with WNET in New York.
Smiley moderated two live presidential candidate 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.
On June 25, 2013, Tavis partnered with BlogTalkRadio, the world's largest social broadcasting network with more than 18 million unique visitors and 40 million listens per month, to launch the Tavis Smiley Network (TSN): Smart talk. Online.
On September 4, 2014, it was announced that Smiley would be competing on the 19th season of Dancing with the Stars. He paired with professional dancer Sharna Burgess. They were eliminated on the second week of competition and finished in 12th place.
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." Prior to the public controversy and being elected President, Obama had been on Smiley's PBS show six times.
In 2012, Smiley participated in a "Poverty Tour" with Princeton University professor Cornel West to promote their book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. The stated aim of the tour was to highlight the plight of the impoverished population of the United States prior to the 2012 Presidential Election, whose candidates Smiley and West stated had ignored the plight of the poor.
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, and was a New York Times Bestseller.
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 recognition 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 community. Since its inception, more than 6,500 young people have participated in the foundation's Youth to Leaders Training workshops and conferences.
His communications company, The Smiley Group, Inc., serves as the holding company for various enterprises encompassing broadcast and print media, lecturers, symposiums, and the Internet.
In 1994, Time named Smiley one of America's 50 Most Promising Young Leaders. Time would later honor him in 2009 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World". In May 2007, Smiley gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana (the university recently honored Smiley by naming the atrium of its School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) building, The Tavis Smiley Atrium).
In May 2008, he gave the commencement address at Connecticut College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate. 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.
In May 2009, Smiley was awarded an honorary doctorate at Langston University after giving the commencement address there. He was also awarded the 2009 Interdependence Day Prize from Demos in Istanbul, Turkey.
To date, Smiley has received 16 honorary doctorates.