In Chicago With Smiley and West Poverty Tour

Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and Louis Farrakhan met in Father Michael Pfleger's church to press for a focus on the poor.

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Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Lynette Holloway)

The grandmother of a 13-year-old boy, whom she says was wrongfully shot and wounded by Chicago police officers, needs help obtaining legal assistance.

Another man, who works with ex-offenders, simply wants help bridging the gap between grassroots organizers and African-American business owners and leaders, whom he calls "elitist Negroes."

The two were among hundreds of people in Chicago who slogged through a sudden evening downpour on Sunday to attend the first town hall meeting that is part of a 16-city Poverty Tour: a Call to Conscience, led by broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West. Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who received a warm welcome from the crowd, was a surprise guest speaker.

Smiley and West, vocal critics of President Barack Obama's economic and social policies, brought their battle to the front door of his stomping grounds: St. Sabina Church on the South Side. The president lived on the South Side and made his name there as a grassroots organizer before becoming an elected official.

In doing so, Smiley and West went straight to the heart of President Obama's political base -- the African-American faith-based community -- to call on him to address issues of the poor in America at a time when the nation's poverty rate stands at 14.3 percent, the highest point in 15 years. Recent figures show that the overall national unemployment rate hovers at 9.1 percent and at 15.9 percent for African Americans, almost double the 8.1 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Given the pair's public criticism of President Obama, it was also a surprising turn of events for the church's pastor, Father Michael Pfleger, to host the affair. Pfleger has been a supporter of the president, but he has said that his interest in the tour is to help combat poverty.

Still, there was no shortage of anti-Obama rhetoric, which was well received by the large, multicultural audience. Smiley and West condemned the legislation that was negotiated to raise the country's debt ceiling because of the budget cuts that were part of the deal. Over the next 10 years, the law will allow at least $2.1 trillion in spending cuts that could hurt entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid.

The "wretched debt-ceiling legislation signed by the president is a declaration of war on the poor," a fired-up Smiley told the audience, to applause.

The 2-hour affair was punctuated by references to the Old Testament and how God protects the poor from oppressors. Farrakhan used history to underscore his point, making frequent references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights icon's support of the labor movement. Echoing that historical reference, the tour will end with a town hall conversation in Memphis, Tenn., and a visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 while in town to march with poor sanitation workers.

Farrakhan extended the civil rights era allusions even further, warning of impending uprisings by the poor. "There will be blood on the streets," he intoned, harking back to the urban riots of the 1960s, when people rose up against poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and other issues.