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Smiley tackling black issues to make 'all of America better'

Story Highlights

• Inspired as teenager by recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.
• Hosts annual black State of the Union symposiums
• Says a better America for African-Americans is a better America for all
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(CNN) -- Later this year, PBS will host two presidential forums, and the moderator might be a new face to many Americans.

Tavis Smiley, a 42-year-old radio and television talk-show host, will oversee the discussion as politicians vie for the most important job in America.

Smiley is one of the most powerful African-American journalists in the country. He sees progress in race relations in the United States but urges lawmakers to see the needs of a nation with many ethnic groups.

"We now live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever and that's a good thing so long as we understand that our diversity is our strength," he said.

Smiley compiled and edited the best-selling book "The Covenant With Black America." He followed that up with "The Covenant in Action," a guide that looks at how ordinary people can help improve the quality of life in the African-American community.

This past weekend, Smiley told an audience gathered for a symposium on black America in Hampton, Virginia, that African-Americans have come a long way in the past 400 years, but there was still a lot of work ahead.

"I believe when you make black America better, you make all of America better," Smiley said.

Smiley has been trying to make America better ever since he received a collection of Martin Luther King recordings as a 13-year-old growing up in Indiana.

"Dr. King had been long since been dead but he brought me back to life," Smiley told CNN. "Through his words, I learned that life has to be about the power of love, and not about the love of power."

After graduating from Indiana University, Smiley took a job in 1988 with Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles, California. He ran for city council three years later but lost. He turned his passion to the airwaves, first appearing on KGFJ, a Los Angeles station, doing commentary. He later got a job on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, a nationally syndicated radio show.

Time magazine named him one of 50 future leaders in 1994. He has grown a media empire since then -- writing eight books, hosting talk shows on PBS, BET and NPR. He has been a political commentator on several cable networks, including CNN. He also has a foundation named after him and in 2004, Texas Southern named its school of communications after him.

Smiley says he tries empowering, enlightening and encouraging people, especially teenagers and young adults.

"You don't have a movement until you have the involvement of young people," he said.

More than 8,000 people attended his symposium, "The Covenant with Black America," to talk about the issues African-Americans face. Smiley said there was talk about the Iraq war, but domestic issues were the focus.

He says blacks care about Iraq, but need and want to talk about domestic issues like jobs, education and health care -- issues he said aren't currently covered heavily by major news outlets.

"The issues that matter to everyday people -- beyond Iraq -- are just not being covered," he said.

He tells other African-Americans that to move forward on these issues, black people need to lead the way. America will be the better for it, he said.

"America just wouldn't be the country she is without the contribution of black people and for that matter other people of color," he said.


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Tavis Smiley hosts a talk show on PBS and has also hosted the black State of the Union for the past eight years.

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