SU approves MLK Week speech by CNN racial issues reporter

Student Union Treasury approved funding to bring Soledad O’Brien to campus as part of the Assembly Series.

The CNN news anchor will speak in Graham Chapel on April 5. The lecture is sponsored by The Association of Black Students, which is sponsoring the lecture as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Treasury approved ABS for $38,368.00, which will cover fees for O’Brien’s speech, travel and hotel stay, as well as a light reception for students. The reception will be open to all who attend the lecture.

O’Brien, who anchors “In America,” a documentary series on the challenges of living in America for members of various races, will speak on segregation in the 21st century and hold a question-and-answer session in Graham Chapel on April 5.

ABS was initially going to bring singer and political activist Harry Belafonte to Washington University on Oct. 25 in conjunction with its Black Arts & Sciences Festival week, but he cancelled at the last minute because of illness.

Though Treasury requires all petitions for Assembly Series speakers to be submitted near the beginning of the year, the body decided to allow ABS to find another speaker to make up for Belafonte’s cancelation. ABS chose O’Brien, who they believed would be effective at getting a similar message across.

“It’s very hard to replace the caliber of Harry Belafonte, as he was such a civil rights activist, but we think that Soledad O’Brien will definitely work,” said senior Adam Abadir, ABS president. “She has such a broad base of appeal to so many students, [and] we thought that she was good fit for the week and the school.”

Two installments of the “In America” series focus on the struggles and experiences of black people in America. The National Association of Black Journalists named O’Brien Journalist of the Year for 2010, and the NAACP awarded her its President’s Award in 2007. Her reporting has covered everything from Hurricane Katrina to the earthquake in Haiti, focusing primarily on humanitarian concerns.

In addition to anchoring “In America,” O’Brien co-hosted “American Morning” from 2003 to 2009.

The Treasury vote was 14-0-2, but not all of the representatives were satisfied with spending the money allotted for Belafonte on O’Brien.

Freshman representative Michael Cohen noted that Belafonte, a confidante to Martin Luther King Jr., was much better-known, and that inferior name recognition could hurt turnout for the event.

Senior Treasury representative Nick Jenkins rejected this logic, however.

“Harry Belafonte would have been great to have on campus, but he’s not coming, so I don’t think we should base any of our decisions on whether he would have been good or bad,” Jenkins said.

O’Brien’s recent book, “The Next Big Story: My Journey through the Land of Possibilities,” has garnered significant media attention because of her allegation that Jesse Jackson challenged her racial identity during an off-the-air meeting. The daughter of a black Cuban and a white Australian, she considers herself Latina, black and Irish.