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.

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Lynette Holloway)

President Obama should acknowledge the poor and come back home to his base — even if it means being a one-term president — said the Nation of Islam minister. “Go out standing up for your base,” Farrakhan said to rousing applause.

On that note, not everyone was happy to see Smiley and West. A small group of protesters met the team during a stop at Dr. King Legacy Apartments, new affordable-housing units built at the site where the civil rights leader lived in 1966. The protesters were upset that Smiley and West appeared to align themselves with city officials, who denied them access to jobs at the site, a man speaking from the audience said.

Overall, audience members who lined up by the dozens were looking for the kind of help that is impeded by poverty. Among them was Collier Baggett, the grandmother of 13-year-old Jimmell Cannon, who was shot multiple times last month by police officers, who say they thought he was holding a BB gun. He has nightmares and other problems as a result of the shooting, said Baggett, whose family is poor. West told her the family was in need of a lawyer.

Paul McRiley, a grassroots organizer, called on Smiley and West to help bridge the gulf between the black haves and have-nots. He is a member of Voice of the Ex-Offender, a group that helps black former prisoners. He said that ex-offenders are getting a raw deal when it comes to jobs.

“The African-American grassroots people feel we have been left out by elitist Negroes,” McRiley said. “We’ve been living in a lot of pain.”

West and Smiley acknowledged the gulf, saying it’s why the tour is so important. Many stories gathered during the tour will be broadcast on the weekly radio program Smiley & West and featured on the PBS show Tavis Smiley. Smiley and West also pledged to help find assistance for some of those who came forward with their stories. Meanwhile, Baggett had told The Root that a Farrakhan assistant at the event had offered to help her.

Still, Smiley and West said, if elected officials haven’t made progress in addressing poverty by next fall, they plan to host another town hall in Chicago during the presidential-election season. After the tour, which ends Aug. 12, the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs will release a white paper that examines the so-called new poor and the changing face of poverty in America. Smiley said the results would be announced in advance of the president’s next State of the Union address.

“We refuse to be silent,” Smiley said of their efforts to draw attention to the plight of the poor, which increasingly includes former members of the disappearing black middle class.

Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

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