When President Obama was publicly sworn into office for the second time on Jan. 21 using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible, many Black Americans were thrilled. Certainly, the King family was—they offered it to the president and attended the event at the Capitol to witness its use.
However, all African Americans did not share that sentiment, most notably former Princeton professor Cornel West and media personality Tavis Smiley, who have, in the past five years, lobbed a barrage of scathing criticism at the president.
In separate statements, the two decried Obama’s use of the Bible given what they see as his spotty record on poverty, U.S. militarism and race relations—issues against which Dr. King fought.
“You don’t use his (King’s) prophetic fire for a moment of presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge he represents to all of those in power regardless of what color they are,” said West during a panel discussion on poverty convened by Smiley at George Washington University on Jan. 17. “The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment of political calculation. And that makes my blood boil.”
In a separate statement on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” on Jan. 20, Smiley voiced a similar complaint.
“Obama is a politician, and a pretty good one, but King was a prophet,” he said. “And while I can appreciate the president's fascination with King's legacy of unarmed truth and unconditional love, I'm feeling some sort of way about King being used symbolically for public pomp and circumstance, but disregarded substantively when it comes to public policy.”
The reproaches have raised questions—again—about whether the pair’s ongoing condemnation of President Obama is based on personal vendetta or fueled by true ideological dissent.
“Both Cornel and Tavis have completely legitimate criticisms of the president, but it’s hard to figure out what their motives are,” said Ohio-based political analyst Jason Johnson.
West, in particular, has lost credibility, Johnson said, because “his behavior throughout this administration has come off as petty and self-serving.”
Robert Smith, professor of political science at San Francisco State University, concurred.
“The rhetoric of West has been so strident and so personal…people think he’s gone a bit overboard…that his criticism has been relentless,” he said.
For example, in a 2011 interview with Truthdig.com, West called Obama “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” In November 2012, he told Democracy Now that Obama was a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”
West said that part of his acrimony toward the president was based on a feeling of personal betrayal. After campaigning for Obama in 2008, the president failed to return his calls and did not provide him and his family with tickets to the inauguration, he said.
“What it said to me…,” West told Truthdig, “was that brother Barack Obama had no sense of gratitude, no sense of loyalty, no sense of even courtesy…Is this the kind of manipulative, Machiavellian orientation we ought to get used to?”
Smiley may have started his public campaign against the president after then-candidate Obama failed to appear at Smiley’s town hall meeting in 2008.
“Tavis considers himself to be the gatekeeper to the Black community and because Obama did not kiss the ring, he began criticizing him,” Johnson said.
Others also believe that the duo’s denunciations of Obama’s policies—his alleged lack of attention to Black issues—are not wholly accurate.
Notre Dame Professor Dianne Pinderhughes said Obama has pursued policies that have benefitted all demographics, like the economic stimulus package, health care reform and the bailout of the auto industry.
Smiley and West have suffered for their outspokenness. Smiley was once a major contributor to the highly-rated syndicated “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” But his 12-year run on the show ended in 2008 when Joyner took issue with Smiley’s continued attacks on the president during his commentaries.
Joyner, an avid Obama supporter, spoke out after Smiley’s criticism of the president for using King’s Bible.
“I believe that Tavis is the one fascinated with Dr. King’s legacy, but more importantly Tavis is fascinated with his own legacy, and that’s not good,” Joyner said in an opinion piece on BlackAmericaWeb.com.