News & Politics

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.

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Nevertheless, and perhaps because we now live in what has been termed the age of communication, poverty deserves a larger portion of our attention.

“No one in this country who is in his right mind, in her right mind—except the Heritage Foundation perhaps—would argue the fact that the ranks of the poor are growing exponentially in this country, and that there is no plan that we have embraced to eradicate poverty,” Smiley maintained. “Those plans exist—Jim Wallis at Sojourners, Jeffery Sachs at Columbia, Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund. Catholic charities. There are all kinds of ideas. Bono has ideas and plans for eradicating poverty! It’s just we’re not taking the eradication of poverty seriously.”

While Smiley pointed to a White House conference on poverty as the most expedient way to engage Congress to start tackling the problem, West alluded to the potential need for revolution fomented by grassroots action.

“We’re trying to shape the national discourse and this is one way of dramatizing it,” said West. “The next step is to highlight those organizations that have been fighting back for a long time, like the Children's Defense Fund or Take Back the Land in Wisconsin. Lot of different forms of people fighting back in the face of power and oligarchy. But this is just the first step. We’re talking about reconstituting tent cities. Poor people just being there, bringing pressure to bear physically on Congress. The same would be true vis-a-vis Wall Street-- tent city in Wall Street, poor people right there. Thousands and thousands of precious poor folk in each one of these bastions of power.”

Does an event like the Poverty Tour serve an integral role in organizing and activating masses of poor people and the people who care about them-- an enterprise that arguably best reflects the true legacy of Dr. King? If any awareness needs to be raised, perhaps self-awareness in the growing numbers of disenfranchised citizens would suffice. There would be no need for researchers to ferret them out from dark alleys and underpasses, boondocks and bad neighborhoods. No need to scour the cracks and crevices of the social safety net to find the appropriate people to present their stories to the public—they’d just be out in the streets, demanding solutions.

If Smiley and West intend to generate a sustained interest in the subject of poverty from the top down, they face a gauntlet of media complacency. The American Prospect plans to publish a piece on the tour as a whole in its next issue, but most progressive publications and their readers are focused on the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and the wonkier aspects of policy. Mention of the Smiley West duo evokes reflexive chatboard accusations that they are a pair of hypocritical “haters,” interested only in raising their profiles. “Power to the People” remains a spectral echo of the American Camelot era, and the hope of “Yes We Can” appears to have died on the vine.

I plan to watch upcoming installments of "The Tavis Smiley Show" if only to see how the tour concluded. I was hoping for even a foreshadowing of populist enthusiasm or outrage on the leg of the tour I joined. The tour did indeed spend a night on the streets of Washington, D. C., hosted town hall meetings in Illinois, Michigan and a few other stops, and joined a protest in Madison, Wisconsin. But after attending a press conference by the Dannon Project, which provides educational and job search support to non-violent ex-offenders, I was informed that Tavis Smiley’s mother would be joining the tour and there was no longer room for me to ride along to Columbus, Mississippi, where I was originally told I would be disembarking.

“That is definitely not cool,” pronounced the director of education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where I was briefly stranded.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I shrugged. That’s show biz!

Habiba Alcindor is the communications coordinator for the Nation. She is an aspiring screenwriter who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.