Tavis Smiley is out as speaker for the annual Martin Luther King luncheon Jan. 16 at Peoria, Illinois Civic Center. Michael Eric Dyson is in, tentatively, according to the Journal Star newspaper.

Public Employees for Community Concerns, the city of Peoria employee group that sponsors the luncheon, canceled the contract with Smiley amid growing concerns about a backlash to his appearance.

Pam Adams reported that following a local book club’s public pronouncement of its decision to boycott Smiley because of his criticisms of President Barack Obama, the local NAACP and a private family group also asked for refunds on tickets purchased for tables of 10.

While that totals only 30 people who requested refunds, Alma Brown, a city employee and key organizer of the luncheon, said she has received so many complaints about Smiley she is worried about ticket sales, Adams wrote.
About 1,220 tickets had been sold as of Wednesday.

Brown said she usually gets “tons” of calls for tickets right after Christmas.
“That isn’t happening this year,” she told the Journal Star. “Bottom line is this is hurting the luncheon, and I’m not going to let anything hurt the luncheon.”

The group, Adams wrote, still is negotiating Smiley’s cancellation fee, according to Brown. He was supposed to have been paid $37,500 to speak.

Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University and commentator on MSNBC, has written more than 18 books, including one on Martin Luther King’s death and how it changed America. He is scheduled to be paid $30,000. Brown expected to learn final arrangements for his visit by late Wednesday or early Thursday.

The 20th annual King luncheon is turning into a memorable event even before it occurs.

First came the last-minute cancellation of actor Forest Whitaker, who had been confirmed months in advance. Then came the last-minute scramble to find a replacement, ultimately Smiley, a journalist and publisher whose critiques of Obama prompted a small boycott from past attendees.

In a letter published in the Journal Star, retired Bradley University professor Barbara Penelton, along with members of her book club, said they preferred to send money to Obama’s re-election campaign rather than pay to hear Smiley.

Brown said she did not know Smiley would create a controversy. But she emphasized that the luncheon is about honoring King’s legacy.