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Don’t Kill the Messengers. Listen to the Message of Professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley

Clarence B. Jones – Scholar in Residence,  Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University – Posted: 8/15/11 01:00 PM ET

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.”

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