You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

“War is the Enemy of the Poor”: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on Poverty, MLK, Election 2012

Media Options

In part two of our interview with Tavis Smiley and Prof. Cornel West, they discuss growing up in working-class households. “I saw so much poverty growing up,” says Smiley, who lived with 13 family members in a three-bedroom trailer and learned that even when he was not optimistic, he could be hopeful. “Hope needs help,” Smiley notes. West recalls how he worked with the Black Panthers to organize a general strike while growing up in Sacramento, California, in order to push for African-American studies programs in local high schools. Looking at current events, Smiley and West cite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that “war is the enemy of the poor.” They compare the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq, and the 2012 presidential campaign, to funding for programs that assist the one in two Americans who are now poor. Click here to see part one of this interview. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StorySep 12, 2013The American Way of Poverty: As Inequality Hits Record High, Sasha Abramsky on the Forgotten Poor
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to part two of our interview with Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. They have just come out with a new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, which draws in part on a 10-state tour they conducted last year to highlight the issue of poverty in the United States. Professor Cornel West teaches religion and African-American studies at Princeton University and is headed to Union Theological Seminary in New York. He has authored many books. Tavis Smiley is an award-winning television and radio broadcaster and does Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West, which he hosts with Cornel West.

In part one of our interview last week,
Democracy Now! co-host Juan González and I talked with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley about the absence of poverty as a political issue despite growing inequality that’s increasing the ranks of the poor.

We turn now to part two of that conversation. We continue by talking about their own backgrounds and how their upbringings have shaped the work they do on the issue of poverty today. We began by speaking with Tavis Smiley.

TAVIS SMILEY: Let me just say, given that I regard Dr. West as the leading public intellectual in our nation, that I regard him as a Du Bois of our time. For all the good work we’ve done together for 25 years, nothing has delighted me more than to have my name on the cover of a book next to his name, because I so love and respect and revere Cornel West and his contributions to this great nation and the world, for that matter. So, to get a chance to sit and write a book with him, where we bring our shared experiences and individual experiences to bear on a topic like poverty, was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

And our upbringings are very different. We are brothers connected at the heart. We grew up in very different environments. He can speak about his own. But I grew up as one of 10 kids. I’m the eldest of 10 kids, grew up in a three-bedroom trailer, my seven brothers and me in one bedroom, my two sisters and my maternal grandmother, Big Mama, in the second bedroom, and my mother and father, Joyce and Emory Smiley, in the third bedroom—13 people in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom trailer. That’s how I was raised, in a trailer park with all white people. We were the only black family for miles around in this white trailer park. The good—


TAVIS SMILEY: In Indiana, North Central Indiana. The good news about that is I learned at an early age that we can get along, if I could take Rodney King’s question and answer it: yes, we can get along. America is a nation where black and white and red and brown and yellow can come together for the sake of making America a greater democracy. So I’ve always believed in the best of America. In that sense, I resonate with Martin’s dream, rooted in the American Dream. I resonate with Dr. King in that regard.

On the other hand, though, I saw so much poverty growing up, because I lived that story growing up. And I’ve been fortunate, and I’ve been blessed. And the short answer is, I know that, even when we can’t be optimistic—and Doc makes this point all the time—even when we can’t be optimistic, we can always be hopeful. And I’m a witness, I’m an example, that you can build an entire life on hope. As I’ve gotten older, though, I realize, though, that hope needs help. And those of us who have the platform and have the opportunity to speak for those who don’t have a voice, Doc and I believe and argue in the book, that is, the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak, so that the suffering is never heard, much less addressed, if those of us who have platforms, like Democracy Now!, don’t raise our voices to speak out on their behalf. That’s why I celebrate what you do and celebrate the opportunity to do this book with Dr. West.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cornel West, the amazing thing about this is that poverty is no stranger to either of you. Talk about your upbringing.

CORNEL WEST: Well, I didn’t grow up in the same kind of poverty this brother did, though. He was broke as the Ten Commandments financially. We had some flow of resources, you know what I mean? It was more working class, lower middle class. But most importantly, we were spiritually rich. We were morally rich. Irene and Clifton, my parents, my brother Cliff, my sisters Cynthia and Cheryl. I’m the father of Zeytun and Cliff and grandfather of Kalen. I’ve lived an extremely blessed life, even though I come out of that—both stable working class, lower middle class. When I met this brother, we decided—what, 25 years ago?

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Sacramento.

CORNEL WEST: Sacramento, California, yeah. It was 25 years ago, I say, “We are going to live and die to keep alive the legacy of Martin King and Fannie Lou and [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: You were fighting from when you were in school. You were what? President of your class, but fighting to include African-American studies?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, we had a general strike, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: What year was it?

CORNEL WEST: That was 1969. We shut the whole—

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you strike?

CORNEL WEST: —city down to make sure they had black studies in every high school, who wanted it. We weren’t authoritarian or coercive about it, you know. But already, you know, we had been set on fire by not just Martin King, but I was working closely with the Black Panther Party, as a Christian, of course. We had wonderful tensions, but I was working the breakfast program, working with them every day trying to ensure they had black studies. And so, when Tavis and I come together, he’s from Kokomo, Indiana—Sacramento, California—boom! King legacy 2012, in our own feeble way. I mean, you know, we’re just doing what we could do before we die.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’ve been covering extensively on Democracy Now!, when you talk about fighting for black studies in the schools, the battle in Arizona in Tucson over the state legislature passing a law—

CORNEL WEST: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that essentially bans Latino studies in the city of Tucson in the public schools there.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And the books that are the heart of the curriculum.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and they banned the books that are the curriculum.

CORNEL WEST: As you point out in your magisterial text, old brother, in some ways, that’s a compliment, because when the powers that be want to suppress the truth, we know truth crushed to earth shall rise again. The truth is dangerous.


CORNEL WEST: The truth is—pushes people against the wall.

AMY GOODMAN: You both, in your book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, refer to Dr. King. I wanted to play a clip of Dr. King. You talk about his campaign against poverty. This was the speech he gave not far from here, Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans. That is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. King, April 4th, 1967. Tavis Smiley, it’s not the speech we usually hear when referring to Dr. King.

TAVIS SMILEY: It is the most courageous speech that Martin King ever gave in his life. And for giving that speech, he was demonized. We talk about this in our work. King, in the last poll taken in his life about his acceptance in popularity in the country, 55 percent of black had turned against black people because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. Seventy-two percent of Americans across the board had turned against Dr. King because of his opposition to the war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: New York Times and the Washington Post editorialized against him.


TAVIS SMILEY: They killed him.

CORNEL WEST: Basically him a communist, basically called him a communist.

TAVIS SMILEY: They absolutely did. They did. That speech is, again, the most courageous speech he ever gave. And there’s one line in that speech—many lines, but one that always resonates with Dr. West and myself, and we talk about it in this book, we quote him in this text: “War is the enemy of the poor.” That’s Martin King. “War is the enemy of the poor.” And the two of you, given the fine work you do here on this Peace Report every day, you understand that. All the resources, the trillion-plus dollars we’ve spent in these military excursions—you can’t even call them “excursions” now, because we’re now—this is the longest war in the history of this country; it’s not an excursion anymore.

CORNEL WEST: Invasion, occupation.

TAVIS SMILEY: Exactly, without, obviously, an exit strategy. But think of all the money spent there that could have been spent on programs here for the poor, number one. Number two, now that we’re no longer in Iraq, as we once were, at least, how will that money be spent domestically that was being spent in Iraq? And since I’m talking about money, and we’re talking about this campaign for the White House, if Mitt Romney is going to raise, as the papers suggest, about $600 million this time around, Barack Obama last time raised $750 million and will raise more now that he’s an incumbent—I’m no math major—you put those two together, you’re talking a billion-plus dollars. Think of how much money—what that money could be used for vis-à-vis programs in this country. But there’s so much money in our politics, both parties beholden to big business and to corporate America, and that’s not even mentioning all the money now being activated by these super PACs. But just think about all that money to run a campaign for the White House and what that money could be used for. It’s sickening to me, quite frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. They have just written their first book together, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. For the full interview, you can go to our website at

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

The American Way of Poverty: As Inequality Hits Record High, Sasha Abramsky on the Forgotten Poor

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation