CORAL GABLES — About 75 people gathered on the campus of the University of Miami on a recent Friday evening to discuss what, if anything, the nation’s first black commander in chief owes the black community.
Moderated by celebrated Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the discussion included a panel of local professionals who weighed in on the forum’s topic, “What Obligation Does President Obama Owe to the Black Community?”
Ogletree also opened up the floor to questions from the audience.
Third-year UM law student Keon Hardemon coordinated the April 9 event after having a conversation on the topic with Ogletree, a visiting professor at UM.
After Ogletree told Hardemon to “make it happen,” the Florida A & M University graduate went to work, garnering the support of UM President Donna Shalala and the law school’s administration.
The panel included the Rev. Dr. R. Joaquin Willis, pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City; Hot 105 radio personality Rodney Baltimore, law professors Donald Jones and Charlton Copeland; Vernell Reynolds, president of the Miami Community Police Benevolent Association; Zandra Rucker, director of the Teenage Parent Program; UM student Lionel Moise, and Miami-Dade Schools administrator Vanessa Woodard-Byers.
The event opened with a Power Point presentation that included snippets from the very public feud between Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) host Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton regarding Obama’s responsibility to the black community.
Although the argument on Sharpton’s radio show included only Smiley and Sharpton, Smiley’s criticism of blacks who he said are treating the president with kid gloves also includes Ogletree.
Smiley’s oft-repeated position is that the president must be held accountable for what he does or doesn’t do for the black community. On his radio show, Sharpton said “the president does not need to get out there and do what we should be doing.”
It was this public discussion about whether a “black agenda” should be presented to the president that sparked the idea for the April 9 forum.
“Ironically, some of you know that this little matter created its own dilemma when Tavis Smiley went on [the] Tom Joyner [radio show] a few weeks ago and said that there’s a part of the choir that [doesn’t] think that there is an obligation; and he cited me and Rev. Sharpton and [NAACP President] Ben Jealous and [National Urban League President] Marc Morial and [prominent social activist] Dorothy Height,” Ogletree said in his opening statements.
Ogletree, who is a close friend of the president and his family, also played a portion of Smiley’s “We Count” forum that took place in the president’s home town of Chicago on March 20. The forum addressed whether Obama should have a black agenda.
The majority of panelists at the UM forum on April 9 supported the president, and were not in favor of his creating or responding to a “black agenda.”
Many attendees theorized that if Obama were to embrace a “black agenda,’’ he would further divide an already fractured country, and might jeopardize his re-election chances, considering the large number of whites who voted for him in the 2008 election.
“He is the president of the United States of America, not the president of black people,” said Woodard-Byers, who is also a candidate for the Miami-Dade School Board. “If he does the right thing for the country, it will be the right thing for black people. I did not vote for him because he was black, I voted for him because he was the right person.”
Reynolds, the PBA president, said the black community should look first to itself and to local government for change.
“Until we’re ready to change ourselves, then we shouldn’t ask [the president] to do it,” Reynolds said.
Copeland shared Smiley’s view that the president does owe the black community, but said, “we don’t ask because he is black, we ask because you gave him 90 percent of votes.”
Jones’ perspective was that in order to fix what ails the black community, there has to be a discussion about it.
“We have to talk about race,” said Jones, author of Race, Sex and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male.
The audience included people with opinions on both sides of the issue.
Retha Boone, a department head with Miami Dade County, said the president “has a responsibility to the people who elected him.”
But Wanda Gilbert, a criminal intelligence analyst with the Miami Gardens Police Department, said the obligation should be reversed.
“More importantly,” Gilbert asked, “What does the black community owe to him?”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Charles Olgetree