TV’s Soledad O’Brien urges Charlotte crowd to honor MLK values year-round

He was hated by many, his last book didn’t sell, and his most famous speech may have been about a dream, but it wasn’t dreamy or warm and fuzzy. It was a tough indictment of America’s failure to keep its promises to African-Americans.

Let’s not sanitize history, TV journalist Soledad O’Brien told 1,800 people on Monday at the Charlotte Convention Center: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said and did things in his time that made a lot of comfortable people pretty uncomfortable.

And that is why, O’Brien said at the 25th annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast, King remains a great model for all of us confronting the need to build a more inclusive community by standing up and speaking out.

Even if that causes discomfort for those just fine with the status quo.

“When I started my first documentary — I’ve done several now on Dr. King — people would tell me: ‘Dr. King was like Jesus come to earth,’” said O’Brien, 52, who anchored the “Black in America” series at CNN. “But the research tells you exactly the opposite was true... He was a regular man who decided that he would lead.”

After TV journalist Soledad O’Brien spoke at Monday’s 25th annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast, she answered questions from the local media about, among other things, her presence on Twitter, where she has almost 1 millon followers.. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In a life cut short by an assassin’s bullet nearly 51 years ago, O’Brien said, King “was present when the moment called.” And like the Good Samaritan that King, a Baptist preacher, often cited, she added, “He would stay when most sane people would run.”

O’Brien, the daughter of a black mother from Cuba and a white father from Australia, told the Charlotte crowd that King’s life and words invite them to follow his lead in doing the same work of “sitting at the table of brotherhood.”

“Martin Luther King Day is not a one-day celebration,” she said. “It’s a year-long commitment that is re-upped year after year after year of living to a set of values, not slogans.”

About 1,800 people attended the 25th annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast on Monday at the Charlotte Convention Center. Mayor Vi Lyles welcomed the crowd. TV journalist Soledad O’Brien, the Harvard-educated daughter of immigrants -- a black mother from Cuba and a white father from Australia -- called on those at the breakfast to live King’s values all year long. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Taking on Trump

The Harvard-educated O’Brien, who hosts “Matter of Fact,” a Sunday morning syndicated political show, steered clear of politics in her speech to the breakfast gathering. But afterward, answering questions from the local media, she exhibited some of the outspokenness of her tweets, which are often about race and often critical of President Donald Trump. She has nearly 1 million Twitter followers.

Asked about Trump’s attacks on the press as purveyors of “fake news” and as “enemies of the people,” O’Brien said: “You notice he talks about ‘fake news’ especially when he’s in trouble. ... And what he’s doing to undermine the press is terrible. To call the press the ‘enemy of the people’ is not only wrong, it’s asinine, it’s un-presidential, it’s dangerous for people who are already under attack.”

What would King make of social media?

“Dr. King was a realist,” she said. “I think he would look at social media like, ‘This is what it is. Now how do we use this social media in order to connect with people better and make sure we’re communicating?’ I think he’d be like most of us — to think it’s a plus, but also (think) trolls are terrible.”

O’Brien said Monday’s visit to Charlotte was far from her first. She said she’s done reporting here for some of her TV documentaries about Latinos and African-Americans.

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Her advice to Charlotte in the wake of its last-place showing — 50th of 50 big U.S. cities — in a national study a few years ago on economic mobility: “The good news in these rankings is that you know. You have to measure what matters. And I think if you have good leadership in the community, they decide that 50th out of 50 sucks, it’s embarrassing, it’s terrible and it has to change.

In her speech to 1,800 people Monday at Charlotte’s annual MLK Day breakfast, TV journalist Soledad O’Brien said her immigrant parents married in 1958 in Washington, D.C. They lived in Baltimore, but interracial marriage was still against the law in Maryland. O’Brien is the daughter of a black mother from Cuba and a white father of Irish ancestry from Australia. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

But I know places and corporations and individuals who don’t measure how people are doing. They don’t measure how they rank. And they pretend to care, but they’re not measuring.”

Added O’Brien, who started a foundation that mentors and pays college tuition for young women, “Economic mobility is central in a healthy community.”

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Tim Funk has covered faith & values for the Charlotte Observer for 15 years. He has won three national awards from the Religion News Association and numerous awards from the North Carolina Press Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.