But this appropriation misrepresents rather than preserves King's legacy. King was a powerful questioner and, at times, ally of President Johnson because he was at the helm of a massive social movement of men and women who were shut out of the ordinary political process. It was not King's intellectual capacity or verbal dexterity that made him an effective advocate for racial issues; it was his own accountability to that movement.
This is not true of Smiley and his "soul patrol," who are mostly public personalities and tenured professors largely unaccountable to the black constituency. King's meager income, though supplemented by the lecture circuit, was grounded in the voluntary contributions of black churchgoers.
Smiley is backed by powerful corporations, like Wal-Mart and Nationwide, that have troubled relationships with these communities. The college profs on the bus are comfortably supported by well-endowed universities. This does not invalidate their views on race, but it does make the analogy with King a poor fit.
Further, Smiley and his "soul patrol" seemed to have missed the intervening 40 years between the era of King and the election of Obama. African-Americans are no longer fully disfranchised subjects of an oppressive state.
African-Americans are now citizens capable of running for office, holding officials accountable through democratic elections, publicly expressing divergent political preferences and, most importantly, engaging the full spectrum of American political issues, not only narrowly racial ones. The era of racial brokerage politics, when the voices of a few men stood in for the entire race, is now over. And thank goodness it is over. Black politics is growing up.
The men of "Stand" yearned for an imagined racial past. By their accounting, this racial past had better music, more charismatic leaders and a more-involved black church.
Their romanticism ignores the cultural contributions of contemporary black youth, forgets the dangerous limitations of charismatic leadership and revises the fraught, complicated relationship of black churches to struggles for racial equality. And these men ignored the democratizing effect of new media forms, which revolutionized the 2008 election.
Black people were not duped by some slick, media-generated candidate. African-Americans were co-authors of the Obama campaign. Through social networks, YouTube videos, political blogs and new-media echo chambers, black people were equal partners in shaping the candidate and his campaign. There was no need for the entrenched pundit class to tell black voters what to think or how to behave; they figured it out for themselves.
Still, there is plenty to criticize in the young Obama administration: the refusal to prosecute those implicated in the torture memos, civilian casualties caused by drone attacks, bank bailouts and inadequate defense of gay rights to name a few. But black communities are already engaged in these critiques and many others. Black local organizers, elected officials, bloggers, pundits and columnists have taken substantive, specific positions on a broad range of issues.
In black communities, nonprofit organizations continue to work for justice, and charities still try to fill the gap during tough economic times. African-Americans are engaged as mature citizens ought to be: in both discourse and action.
This political maturity is precisely the source of the black public intellectual crisis: What do Smiley and the Soul Patrol add to this process? Their bus never stopped at a Habitat for Humanity site to build a home or at a soup kitchen to serve the hungry. Their dialogue centered more on the relative merits of Aretha vs. Beyonce than on meaningful political issues.
Though they spoke with elders, their self-congratulatory revelry never paused to engage any elected officials, issues specialists or local activists. And while they talked a great deal about women, they never spoke to a woman.
"Stand" was sad because I still believe in a role for black public intellectuals. Scholars and journalists often have a particular capacity for curiosity, questioning and issue synthesis that has real value in public discourse. It was painfully clear that this particular accountability crusade is not informed by any of those skills. Instead, it seems determined to stand in the way of the maturation of African-American politics in order to maintain personal power.
My hope is that some day soon we can push these carnival barkers from the stage as "voices of the black community". We need new and better advocates for us who care about more than book sales and speakers fees. Who is ready to step up to the plate?