The Root Interview: Why Tavis Smiley "Cannot Be Silent"

He reveals what inspired his upcoming black agenda summit, and why Rev. Al won't be there.

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Just weeks after Tavis Smiley announced in January that he'd be ending his annual State of the Black Union conference, the PBS talk show host and activist revealed plans to convene a one-day symposium with leaders and prominent thinkers about the African American agenda.  "The conversation is about whether or not there is a need for an African American agenda in the era of Obama in this so-called "post-racial" America and how we go about doing that," Smiley told The Root in an interview.

"We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda,'' is coming up this Saturday, March 20, at Chicago State University, and will be broadcast by C-SPAN. [Update on March 19: The event will be taped, not broadcast live. In order to view it as it happens, check out the UStream online.] Up to 5,000 people are expected to attend the panel discussion, which will include Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan; Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.; Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of Policylink; professors Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West; and Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux.

The discussion comes on the heels of a vigorous debate between Smiley and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton over how black leaders should relate to President Barack Obama's administration. Percolating beneath the surface of the dispute was Smiley's question of whether the president has done enough to help blacks who have been hit hard by the recession.

Below, Smiley answers some questions about the "We Count!'' conference:

The Root: Why did you decide to cancel the State of the Black Union conference and hold "We Count!''

Tavis Smiley: No. 1, after 10 years of doing the State of the Black union [we decided] that we weren't going to do it anymore because we had done it for 10 years. No. 2, in addition to my TV show, in addition to my radio show, and the other seven businesses I run through my company, we're doing four primetime documentaries for PBS. When I started the State of the Union, there weren't the numbers of blacks that there are now in the space that I occupy. [Now] there are other spaces and places to have these conversations about issues that matter.

TR: Was the conference sparked by the radio debate between you and Rev. Sharpton?

TS: The radio debate happened as a result of my calling for the conference. Sharpton didn't like what I said in the commentary calling for the conference and went after me on his radio show. I was asked to call into his radio show to talk to him. Because I have great respect for Rev. Al Sharpton, I consider him a friend even to this day; I respect his work and his witness. He has been a freedom fighter. My statement is this: I think we need to learn as black folk how to learn to agree and disagree without being disagreeable. We can disagree without engaging in personal ad hominem attacks. After I went on his radio show, the conversation turned out to be what it turned out to be and people can judge for themselves.

TR: Rev. Sharpton's name isn't on the list of invitees. Was he invited?

TS: Yes, he was invited. He said he couldn't attend because of a scheduling conflict.