In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King launched the Chicago Freedom Movement on the city’s West Side to decry economic conditions and policies that left blacks impoverished and languishing in slum housing.
Now some four decades later, Tavis Smiley and noted professor Dr. Cornell West continue in that vein. Smiley and West recently brought their national conversation on poverty to West Garfield Park, a community plagued by joblessness and high crime.
The two prophetic speakers stirred the packed crowd that filled the pews at New Mount Pilgrim Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd., on April 21. Among them was 18-year-old Terry Moore, of Hillside.
“These two men are outstanding intellectuals,” the Eastern-Illinois University student said. “The information that they told us you kind of hear it every day, but you don’t hear it as well as they presented it.”
The duo came to Chicago to promote their latest tome, The Rich and the Rest of Us, which is an extended conversation of poverty tour from last year. The LEADER’s Network hosted the event, attended by such notables as Fr. Michael Pfleger and former alderman Dorothy Tillman.
In his book and speech, Tavis lamented the seemingly lack of attention poverty receives from the White House, a sentiment that has rattled the friendship between President Obama, Smiley and West. The book tour coincides with the presidential election to force presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Obama to talk about the “P-word” or poverty.
Smiley insists that ignoring a dialogue on poverty threatens this nation’s democracy. He pointed to the uprising in North Africa. The Arab Spring, Smiley contends, grew out of disenfranchisement of people in Egypt and Tunisia that eventually lead to the toppling of those governments.
Smiley said he received a lot of “pushback” from critics who consider his remarks “hyperbolic” to suggest that the “very future of our democracy is so fragile that we are somehow on the edge … if we don’t start to do something about this widen gap between the have-gots and the have-nots.”
But the proof, he argues, is in the numbers: one out of two Americans are near or in poverty.
“I was no math major, but I think that means half of us,” Smiley said. “Those numbers are not sustainable. One percent of the population cannot continue to own or control 42 percent of the wealth. You cannot sustain a democracy.”
The country’s political establishment, Smiley contends, has its “heads in the sand like an ostrich” when it comes to discussing poverty. Just as in 2008 and the current presidential campaign, poverty was never discussed, even as the economy was tanking, Smiley said, noting that the focus instead was on the middle class. But the middle class condition now exemplifies that precipice the country’s democracy teeters on.
“The middle class is disappearing,” Smiley said, insisting that the “new poor” is the middle class. “Poverty ain’t color coding. We got to stop thinking black when we think poverty. We got to stop thinking brown when we think poverty. If half the nation is in poverty that is bigger than a black and brown construct.”
West, the former professor at Princeton University, called it a “moral disgrace” to have 23 percent of American children living in poverty in the richest nation in the world. He questioned why social programs get cut, but the government finds billions to spend on the military and building prisons.
“We understand what is going on. It’s greed. It’s hypocrisy. It’s inequity,” West said to thunderous applauds. “Where is the talk about jobs and the living wage?”
After a 90-minute speech, West and Smiley took questions.
When asked about their harsh criticism of Obama, West said while they respect Obama, he shouldn’t escape from being put to task. West has often criticized Obama for “his relative distance from black people.”
“We got to respect him in addition to protest him. But the third thing is we got to correct him,” West said. “[Obama] is preoccupied with making the establishment feel secure. He is tilted toward Wall Street.”
Sarah Ceeser attended the event to hear West speak. She’s heard a lot about West, but was unfamiliar with Smiley. Ceeser was moved by their presentation, but was even more amazed at this country’s staggering wealth gap.
“The vast difference really shocked me,” the North Lawndale resident said. “I know it was out there but just didn’t know the number.”
In the book, Smiley outlined possible solutions to poverty, noting that it is not an unsolvable problem. Poverty was reduced significantly under former President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign. And in the South American country of Chile, between 1987 and 2009, poverty was reduced from 48 percent to 11 percent.
“If we are really all that and them some; if we really are that exceptional, then why can’t we do something about poverty in this country,” Smiley said.