Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley don’t hate the Messenger… : ThyBlackMan

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Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley don’t hate the Messenger…

August 15, 2011 by  
Filed under News, Opinion, Politics, Weekly Columns

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(ThyBlackMan.com) Dr. Cornel West, author, professor of Princeton University, and TV and radio talk host Tavis Smiley have generated a lot of controversy in the media arising from their criticism of President Obama’s leadership, or lack thereof. They are currently on nationwide “poverty tour” that will take them to 16 poor communities across the nation. They started off in Obama’s hometown of Chicago.

According to Dr. West, “it is not an anti-Obama tour.” They seek to draw attention to and highlight what they believe is lack of effort by both the president and Congress to address the needs of the Americans hardest hit  by  the recession.

Some persons in the media and defenders of the White House criticized them not only for the content of their message, but their style and language. Some have even imputed ego motives to their criticism of the president, alleging that it all is because they have been “snubbed” and not invited to the White House by the president.

Before proceeding further, a note of personal disclosure. I know both Professor West and Tavis Smiley. I considered them to be friends. I have been a guest on Tavis Smiley’s TV interview show. They both know me, and my history of not hesitating to speak my mind, even if it means criticizing of some of my friends. In their case, my criticism is limited to some of the acerbic word references Dr. West has directed toward President Obama. Otherwise, my criticism of the both of them can be stated simply by asking: “Why did you wait so long to embark upon your tour?

In a prior blog in June, captioned “Canaries In the Coal Mine of Obama’s Reelection“, I wrote “Canaries have been used to warn miners digging for coal underground of the danger of toxic gases. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled need for an immediate evacuation.”

There are valuable “canaries,” albeit politically diverse, and in some cases sending warnings to the White House. Their “singing” (voices) may be more valuable in providing guidance for Obama in his reelection campaign than the president and his advisers fully understand and appreciate.

Dr. Cornel West is also an invaluable “canary.” His warning advice and comments should not be ignored. We, or the White House, may not like the tone, content, or the intensity of his “singing.” His “singing” to warn the president.

It is ironic that Professor West and Tavis Smiley commenced their tour on August 5th, 2011. The month of August has been a seminal month in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Forty-seven years ago, on August 4th, 1964, the soul and conscience of America was awakened and shocked by the discovery of the beaten and brutalized bodies of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss. (See movie Mississippi Burning). Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white and Jewish, from New York City, together with James Chaney, from Mississippi, were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan with the aid of local sheriffs.

One year later, on August 6th, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1964 only 6% of eligible blacks were registered in the State of Mississippi. Seven years later their registration had increased to 60%. Five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Bill, rioting occurred in Watts, a predominantly African-American community in Los Angeles.

Later this month, on August 28th, a privately financed $100 million Memorial Monument will be officially opened in Washington, D.C. honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and commemorating his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial forty-eight years ago. In this connection at a recent private fundraising speech President Obama gave in New York, he is reported to have compared himself and his agenda to that of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“And now that King has his own memorial on the Mall I think that we forget when he was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times. There was a decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma in which he was just struggling, fighting the good fight, and scorned, and many folks angry. But what he understood, what kept him going was that the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because all of us are putting our hand on the arc and we are bending it in that direction. And it takes time. And it’s hard work. And there are frustrations.”

With all due respect Mr. President, I knew Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a friend of mine. Dr. King ended American apartheid. Without his moral and political leadership in transforming America, your election as the 44th president of the United States would not have occurred.

Accordingly, when asked frequently during the years after his assassination who I think today is most like Martin Luther King, Jr., my response has been and remains: No one! Martin Luther King, Jr. was “Sui Generis,” unique, one of a kind. I then pose a rhetorical question to those who ask me such a question: Who today is most like Leonardo DaVinci, Beethoven, Galileo, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Copernicus?

Finally, Mr. President, if you in fact said, “There was a decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma in which he was just struggling, fighting the good fight, and scorned, and many folks angry.” You were and are historically incorrect. The civil rights campaign led by Dr. King in Birmingham was in April and May of 1963, the Selma March with him and SNNC chairman, John Lewis (now Congressman) was on March 7th, 1965. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Thus, he was not alive during the “decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma” to which you referred.

Why do I mention these things in connection with Professor West and Tavis Smily? I do so to give some historical context and perspective to their “poverty” tour, criticism of President Obama’s leadership and to the criticism directed at them.

Professor West and Tavis Smiley are seeking to reclaim and redeem the moral conscience and soul of America. They are speaking out and conducting themselves in the best tradition of social activists and “soul stirrers“; carrying forward the legacies of Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, A. Phillip Randolph, Frederick Douglass, Ossie Davis, Bella Abzug, Paul Robeson, Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, journalist author, H.L. Mencken, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and others.

In the 1960s and during later years in the 20th century, the media and political establishment often spoke or wrote about so-called “responsible Negroes“; in contrast to persons like Martin Luther King, Jr., whom they deemed at different times as being “irresponsible.” This was also an instance when Malcolm X and Dr. King, independently of one another, would both ask the same question: “responsible to whom?

This was also period of the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Several “establishment Negroes” in the media and those working in the business or non-profit sector were more interested in going along and getting along; instead of dissenting from the then prevailing white or black orthodox opinion.

If you think what West and Tavis are saying and doing are “extreme,” then I refer the reader to the recent Republican presidential candidates’ debate. They were asked by Chris Wallace, Fox News commentator and moderator, what they would do in a hypothetical case of a deficit-reduction deal that consisted of 90% percent of the spending cuts they want, but contained a 10% tax increase. Each candidate raised their hand indicating that they would reject such a proposal.

New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, commenting earlier this week, said, “That moment should tell every voter in America everything about this current crop of Know-Nothings — no person who would take such a stance is fit to be president of the United States or any developed country.”

His colleague at the Times, Paul Krugman, wrote,

“For more than a year and a half — ever since President Obama chose to make deficits, not jobs, the central focus of the 2010 State of the Union address — we’ve had a public conversation that has been dominated by budget concerns, while almost ignoring unemployment. The supposedly urgent need to reduce deficits has so dominated the discourse that on Monday, in the midst of a market panic, Mr. Obama devoted most of his remarks to the deficit rather than to the clear and present danger of renewed recession.”

So, again, with respect and affection, I ask my friends, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, why did you wait so long to start your nationwide poverty tour?

They and readers should remember Dr. King’s timeless comment: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Written By Clarence B. Jones


11 Responses to “Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley don’t hate the Messenger…”
  1. natalie says:

    The irony is that the president chose fathers day to deliver a message of accountability to black men….and now that black men (west smiley belafonte glover farrakhan etc) are delivering a similarly passionate message of accountability to the president regarding his “abandonment issues” the loyalist and President O has an issue huh?


    I am not surprised at Tavis Smiley because his tactics are often times below the belt but Mr. West.. dissappointed I have always held u to the highest regard but u have fallen from grace. In my opinion.. this is a political agenda…. perhaps trying to be Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson but it’s not selling. Remeber as I remember it was a black man that whites used to kill MLK. It was black Africans that whites used to enslave Africans….

    Whose agenda is this really? Tavis has been bitter for years years… sorry excuse for a black man sell out…

  3. natalie says:


    EVERYONE can hold his feet to the fire and have their community addressed but us?

  4. James Davis says:

    Here’s the problem I have with West and Smiley’s tour. Poor people have been around since the time of Jesus Christ. Jesus acknowledged this in scripture, John 12:8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. We didnot need West and Smiley to tell us this, that there are poor people out there!!! No matter what the federal government has done in the past and present, poverty has not been eliminated. Neither West or Smiley identified a specific solution on their tour that would have ameliorated poverty, unlike Martin Luther King during his poverty campaigns. King was attempting to have legislation before Congress passed that he felt would reduce poverty. So, what were these guys doing!! There in lies the problem. We have brothers and sisters like West and Smiley who are at the top of the heap who are wasting “valuable air time.”

    They could have use their air time to guide us to a solution to the problem of unemployment among Black males which stand at 17%. They don’t get it. We don’t want you to show us the problem!! Use your air time to show us how to resolve the problem!! To show you I’ve have not used this air time frivolously as Smiley and West did.

    Go to http://www.sslumpsum.com, and please, let us all realize we are in dire straits, and we are hurting out here. Use whatever time you have before the public to promote a solution!!! Thank you.
    James Davis


    listen , I,am old school if you have an disagreement with another person of color , keep in the house , try to stick together , do like all the other race keep in the family , see they stich together no matter what the case is , ..but you know that WOW MY PEOPLE

  6. Sapphire says:

    What a crock of crap!

    Where have they been for the last 10 years???

    Who is paying for this “poverty” tour?

    Have they (Mr. West & Smiley) given/donated any of their monies to poor people?

    What good does a tour of the poor do for poor people?

    Sorry, I ain’t buying what these two are selling!

  7. Agabus says:

    It saddens me that so many people do not understand history nor the politics of America. “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” For one minute look at the actions of the speaker of the House. He has used that very quote of Frederick Douglas on the President. You will extend the Bush tax cuts; or we will sit on our hands(Power). You will not raise taxes(Concession); if you want the debt ceiling raised(Power); then this you must do(Demand).

    Now as far as unification. Never the negros who have never went along have always been out front leading the Negros who have always got along in the end. I am Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Sojouner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, ML King Jr.. Keep in mind that negros were not unified during the Civil Rights Movement there were several voices speaking to the same cause in a different manner.

    Thurgood Marshall believed that court was the best means to Civil Rights therefore he never gave props to his frat brother ML King Jr. He wanted to be the star and the leader. He was effective nevertheless. One voice is never good enough for the same cause. People are not going to hear the same thing in same manner. We need as many voices as we can get speaking Truth to Power!

  8. Tonni says:

    Do you really think you’re helping in any way? Why are you fighting against the President? I suggest forming an alliance with the President to help resolve issues in our society. UNITY IS POWER!!!!!! DIVISION IS DESTRUCTIVE!!!!!!

  9. KRush says:

    My question to Tavis and Dr. West is, what are you doing for the poor? As citizens with better than poor means how are you giving back to help the President?

  10. Dell Gines says:

    I think a more important question is not what you will die for it is what you will live for. Social justice should be a way of life, not a pursuit of death. What you die for is irrelevant if what you live for has no value. What Dr. King did of value was done while he was alive.

    Personally I have absolutely no problem with what the brothers are doing. Criticism is warranted if actions do live up to promises. If we can’t hold our own accountable whether it is in the White House or out, then we are sad and lost.

    I often hear quoted “With great power comes great responsibility”. If someone is not living up to the responsibility confered by power, should we not call that out?

  11. Dr Lewis says:

    “The Poor ye shall have with you always”. Jesus said this. I would like for Tavis Smiley and Cornell West “dispute” this fact. It is true that many blacks wanted Dr MLK to stay quiet about what he believe in. Many did not march with him when he came to Memphis. Many blacks stayed quiet. I know because I live in the city that he was “killed” (since 1948) and know better than anyone, what Dr MLK done for the “Sanitation” Workers. Dr King came to Memphis and he marched with these workers.

    He also held conference with John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson about those that were unfortunate. Why Tavis Smiley and Cornell West cannot do the same? Dr MLk died for what he believed in. How many are willing to die today for what they believe to be an injustice of the poor? Raise your hand?

    If you have something to say, go to the person and say it; if you have the guts. If you cannot say it to the person; shut up.

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