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Six Hours With the Poverty Tour

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West launched their "Poverty Tour" in early August. Was it a much-needed reminder of the pervasiveness of poverty in America or just grandstanding?

Poverty affects one in six Americans, yet remains an unpopular aspect of reality, occupying a darker corner of the collective American psyche than, say, breast cancer or drunk driving. It’s the half of the Great March on Washington that gets short shrift. Everyone remembers the dramatic battle waged by largely African American activists for the recognition of their humanity, but only the more historically inclined can readily cite the march’s alternative name -- the March for Jobs and Freedom -- or attest to the heavy involvement of labor unions in organizing the demonstration.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968 came mere weeks before he had planned to spearhead the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. Nevertheless, activists persisted in populating Resurrection City, a shantytown erected in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, over which Jesse Jackson presided as mayor. Inclement weather and the assassination of Robert Kennedy added too much additional drag to the decapitated movement. Resurrection City folded its tents six weeks later and the Campaign for the Poor withered away without having made the same cultural impact and legislative advances as did the Civil Rights Movement.

So when I heard Dr. Cornel West announce at the 2011 National Association of Black Journalists that he and Tavis Smiley were planning a Poverty Tour “that would keep alive that spirit of Dr. King,” I decided to report on the event, which was conspicuously lacking in anticipatory buzz. Unlike other more cynical people in media, I did not question the timing of the tour. The economy continues to gutter, schools and businesses close, postal and transit workers fight what increasingly looks like a losing battle for job quality. The idea of a Poverty Tour excited me. The tour, beginning in Wisconsin and ending in Memphis, Tenn. would course through America like a lightning bolt, highlighting and energizing the poor and those in the trenches who provide social services.

After scheduling to meet the tour in Atlanta, I immediately e-mailed the Atlanta Homeless Task Force to arrange an interview ahead of time. Atlanta ranks fourth on the “ Meanest Cities of America” list for its anti-panhandling and anti-loitering laws. Surely a homeless advocacy organization would have been invited to participate in the tour.

I never heard back from them, and on Thursday morning when I reached the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King once preached, I saw that only four people were invited to speak at the 9am breakfast: Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials ( GALEO) and three Latino students. Other members of the media and a smattering of locals tiptoed around the discussion so as not to disturb the cameramen recording the conversation.

Thus it dawned on me before I had conducted my interview that the Poverty Tour was not conceived as a populist campaign. Rather, it was a curated media production, overseen by "Tavis Smiley Show" producer Joe Zefran (formerly of Air America) and Smiley’s director of brand integration, Rhonda Nelson—a well-oiled machine that hummed along at a very brisk pace.

After the breakfast I attempted to interview Jerry Gonzalez but there was simply no time. The breakfast was immediately followed by a walk around the corner to the Truly Living Well urban community garden, where members presented Smiley and West with wreaths of gladioli. The wreaths were then carried back across the street by a pair of sweating urban gardeners to the King National Historic Site where Kings’ children led a prayer ceremony. Cameras snapped once more, capturing the five figures with their heads downcast. “Don’t miss the bus,” I was warned. “It will leave without you.”

And then we were gone, off to CNN’s Atlanta headquarters for an 11:15 interview with Suzanne Malveaux. Smiley’s people congratulated themselves when they learned that CNN aired footage of Ann Arbor’s “ Camp Take Notice” tent city. Zefran added that the video failed to convey the swarms of mosquitoes infesting the 48-family community.

“I am not an elected official, not a minister, I’m not a national leader, I don’t run social service agencies,” Tavis Smiley explained on the way to Birmingham. “I am a broadcaster.” Fair enough. A number of media outlets have interviewed the Smiley-West duo and given them the opportunity to relay information gathered from the various underserved groups and non-profits they have met on their breakneck tour of 15 cities in six days. Smiley plans to showcase more poor Americans on his show in the months ahead. The Poverty Tour was both deliberately and incidentally limited in scope. “The idea just hit this brother [Smiley] six weeks ago,” Cornel West mentioned at one point.

Bearing this in mind, criticizing members of the tour for not conducting any voter registration misses the mark. So do complaints about Smiley’s corporate connections. This particular tour, which cost $135,000, was financed by the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Education Association, Feeding America, Tavis Smiley himself and various private donors. Smiley is not an activist, and even that disclaimer is likely a talking point crafted by his handlers. This is not 1964 -- the euphoric year the Civil Rights Act was passed -- or even 1968, when, despite the assassinations of King, Malcolm X and Robert and John F. Kennedy, the government was still drafting poor and working-class men to fight in Vietnam.