Candidates should be like Ike and do the right thing

September 27, 2007|By Tavis Smiley

This week, civil rights leaders and other dignitaries descended on Little Rock, Ark., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High School. It was a watershed moment in history, as the young black students known as the "Little Rock Nine" braved an angry and violent mob of white protesters who were determined to prevent them from sitting beside white children in school.

This event, watched by the nation and the world, was the occasion of the first important test for the implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, in which segregated (separate but equal) schools were ruled unconstitutional. In September 1957, Arkansas became a symbol of state resistance when the governor, Orval Faubus, defied the federal court ruling by ordering the National Guard to prevent those nine black youths from entering Central High.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending troops to protect the students as they entered the school. History recorded the fact that President Eisenhower supported Brown v. Board and also told District of Columbia officials to make Washington a model for the rest of the country in efforts to integrate black and white schoolchildren.

Although some critics suggest that Mr. Eisenhower, a Republican, wasn't enthusiastic about civil rights, he proposed to Congress the first significant civil rights legislation since the 1870s - the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 - and signed those acts into law. Maybe Mr. Eisenhower's actions weren't pure, and at the time they certainly weren't popular, but those nine black students can confirm that Mr. Eisenhower did the right thing.

Coincidentally, this same week, the potential history-making views of the current generation of Republican leaders will also be on display, at the All-American Presidential Forum on PBS, which I will moderate as three journalists of color pose questions to the candidates. This forum, held tonight at Morgan State University in Baltimore, will provide a unique opportunity for the Republican presidential hopefuls to address civil rights and other issues of concern to communities of color, such as health care, housing, education and criminal justice.

Given that Republicans aren't known for addressing bipartisan black and brown audiences, it might put some people slightly outside of their comfort zone (although it would be fairly minimal discomfort compared with what the Little Rock Nine faced 50 years ago).

But unfortunately, as of this writing, the four top candidates, Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, had declined the invitation. Six other Republican candidates have agreed to participate. By contrast, all the Democratic candidates showed up in June for a similar forum at Howard University.

It has become a pattern for most of the GOP presidential candidates to strategically avoid addressing some of the nation's leading groups and institutions of color, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Univision and major groups representing Asians and Native Americans.

Sure, it's a crowded field of contenders. Sure, their political advisers keep their days packed shaking hands with the friendliest faces and pocketbooks. But it's time for diverse communities to have a chance for meaningful dialogue and face time with candidates beyond their showing up for Cinco de Mayo or at an African-American church weeks before the election.

It will be a missed opportunity for America if all the candidates don't choose to address all Americans in what is now the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. It's not just about race, it's about respect. It's about candidates taking the time to get to know Americans even beyond their base. It's just the right thing to do.

Starting now and throughout the campaign, I hope that all the candidates, Democrats and Republicans, will be reminded of the example of President Eisenhower and step up to the plate.

Tavis Smiley is a television and radio host and author of "What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up In America." His e-mail address is tavis@tavistalks.com.

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