MEMPHIS, Tenn. – On August 12, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West brought the last stop of their “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience” to Memphis, Tennessee. The location was chosen in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s support for sanitation workers and as the site of the National Civil Rights Museum (former Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated).

As stated in previous interviews on major media outlets including CNN and MSNBC, their purpose was to raise consciousness about the plight of the poor in America amid ongoing recession and joblessness, as well as to highlight indifference by many of America’s leaders and the press.

Both Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have recently drawn flack from some within African-American communities because they criticized President Obama as not addressing poverty during his policy speeches and debates. While this may appear justified in light of recent conciliatory gestures to Republicans in Congress, Obama, to his credit, has fought consistently to extend unemployment benefits, to fund public health clinics, and to promote better nutrition for the schoolchildren of impoverished families.

Billed as a Town Hall Meeting to air general community grievances, the event took place at the St. Andrew AME Church, located in poverty-stricken southwest Memphis.

It opened with a call to prayer that foreshadowed the night’s topic with reference to the “hard-hearted” policies of past months, the result of tea-party Republican candidates’ election to Congress. In characterizing the recent debt-ceiling deal, Tavis Smiley listed the negative impact of: no extensions this time for unemployment benefits, no calls for new revenues, and no closing of tax loopholes for corporations. He reported that the initial consideration of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security were put on the table not by Majority leader Boehner, but by President Obama himself.

In short, he said, the deal was all “cuts-cuts-cuts,” with a questionable resolution by a 12-member Super-Congress that would supposedly determine, in draconian fashion, what Congress could not. According to Smiley, as a result of the debt-ceiling deal, things are about to get worse for many Americans.

Addressing a near standing-room-only audience, the speakers were not there, however, to criticize President Obama’s performance, but to uplift, in the old Southern religious tradition, and to mobilize poor communities, those hit hardest by the current global economic crisis.

Cornel West spurred the audience to better inform themselves, organize, and to push Obama and their congressional representatives to promote their needs. He stressed the need to inspire politicians to turn away from “America’s 30 plus-year-old culture of greed.” by reconnecting with the poor in a new covenant of brotherhood.

West’s comments resonated powerfully with those assembled by insisting that poverty is not just a political and economic issue, but also a moral and spiritual one. This turn from politics to religion and back again fit the style of the meeting’s setting and purpose. But some observed that it left specifics of just what was needed to help those economically devastated unaddressed. The audience left uplifted, though a bit befuddled about a practical strategy for tomorrow.

Having travelled to nine states and eighteen cities in just under two weeks, the Poverty Tour, like a communal “Love Train” (to quote the O’Jays), left its church-packed participants with the stories of families and young people struggling to find jobs. While facing homelessness, cuts (or coming cuts) in federal assistance, and a new social status (from middle-class to poor), these people shared a common story in the tearful frustration that their education and job experience had not saved them from social disaster.

West told of a white family that they stayed with in Columbus, Mississippi, who now lived on federal assistance after both had been laid off. The husband is now cutting grass and the wife is cleaning houses to make ends meet.

While in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the State Capital Building, they slept among the street people. Two were twenty-three year old students, one in college “part-time” studying architecture while looking for work.

On the Lac Courte Oreilles Native American reservation in Wisconsin, where the tour started, the recession had hardly been noticed among the Ojibwe: the situation there had always been dire since the best land on the reservation belonged to wealthy, corporate families, either in the form of beach-front property or fishing-resort vacation spots on Lake Superior.

Has the tour achieved its goal to place poverty once more in the center of the nation’s discussion about a proposed historic economic recovery? The three proposals coming from Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are: (1) defend the President against Republican, tea-party critics, but encourage him to make sustained policy investments in poor and working-people’s needs, (2) promote new media voices outside the corporate “mainstream” (especially online) to spread awareness of new, alarming trends in American poverty, and (3) build bridges between successful individuals supportive of social justice and poor, working-class Americans. All of these presuppose the desire and ability to organize, which Tavis Smiley and Cornel West built their 2-week tour to help re-invigorate.



Glenn Ramsey
Glenn Ramsey

Glenn Ramsey teaches history at the University of Memphis. Reach him through Political Affairs.