The tension in the air was palpable as two of the country’s most outspoken pundits stepped foot off their tour bus and into Columbus, Mississippi.
Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West stopped in Columbus last Friday as a part of their famed Poverty Tour. The two media personalities are known for their radio show Smiley and West, as well as being regulars on Real Time with Bill Mahr and The Colbert Report.
Smiley has been a mainstay in broadcasting for thirty years. In addition to Smiley and West, Smiley also hosts a late-night talk show on PBS and a self-titled radio program.
Dr. West is a Class of 1943 Princeton professor. A graduate of both Harvard and Yale, West has been a professor at both as well as The University of Paris. In addition to Smiley and West, the Princeton professor is a celebrated author and speaker.
After spending the night with a local family, Smiley and West met with a group of Columbus citizens who receive assistance from Prairie Opportunity, a locally and federally funded operation that helps those in need.
But before the two and their gaggle of assistants and camera crews could venture up to the meet the waiting group on the penthouse floor of Court Square Towers, they were met by local Columbus personality Brenda Caradine, who had a bone to pick with the visitors.
Caradine says that she was working out on the treadmill at the YMCA when she saw the Poverty Tour bus pull up and park in front of the building. She explained that she saw it “as a miracle from God” and ran outside to speak with Smiley and West.
According to Caradine, she sent a letter to The Commercial Dispatch and it was never printed. In her letter, Caradine claims that she “begged Birney to disinvite the tour” because she was afraid it would “stigmatize our town.”
She repeatedly asked the men, “Why are you in Columbus? Why are you here? What is your definition of poverty?”
Smiley told Caradine, “Poverty isn’t just financial, it’s a state of mind.”
Caradine responded to Smiley by telling him about the local program Loaves and Fishes that feeds those in need.
“We have Loaves and Fishes, we have churches in this town who are concerned about the poor, who do their best to help out,” she said.
A long time supporter of the arts and the head of the Tennessee Williams Festival, Caradine proceeded to tell Smiley that Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus. She then invited them to visit the Welcome Center and tour the playwright’s home. To this West told Caradine that he had indeed been to the Welcome Center the night before. Caradine began boasting the legacy of Williams and proclaimed, “His daddy was a preacher.” West then interrupted Caradine and said, “No, his grand daddy was a preacher.” To that she then responded, “His daddy was as well.” West mused for a moment and then said, “You are right. You know your Tennessee Williams.”
Smiley and West were then ushered away by their handlers as Caradine told the cameras, “Columbus, Mississippi is a great place to live!”
Once inside the building, the group gathered in a circle and Smiley introduced West and himself and then told the group about his meeting with Caradine.
“As we pulled up this morning, there was a woman, a white woman, waiting for us so she could read Dr. West and me the riot act. She wanted to get in our faces, personally, and she did, very boldly. To tell us the fact that she didn’t appreciate the fact that we were here in town. She didn’t like that we would bring a ‘Poverty Tour’ and pull up in this big Poverty Tour bus, saying, ‘You’re stigmatizing our town, this is not a poverty town.’ On and on she went, expressing her displeasure, and that’s putting it kindly.”
Smiley described his interview the night before with a reporter from the Commercial Dispatch.
“We had this reporter show up last night and I granted her an interview, The Columbus Dispatch, and I must have talked to her for twenty minutes. The first ten to twelve minutes of her questions were all about why we were in Columbus and she told me that there were many persons in the city who didn’t appreciate that we were here. I want to start with that just to give you some sense of how we have been received, at least by some parts of the city, by being here to talk about the issue of poverty,” he said.
Smiley’s tone then shifted as he described his and West’s experience the night before. Smiley and West stayed with the Wilson family, a family with nine children who are living in a home built by Habitat for Humanity.
“We stayed with the Wilson family last night, a white family. We were met by a white woman this morning and a white woman, a reporter last night, asking a bunch of questions, but we stayed, Dr. West and I literally just came from spending the night with a white family. A white family with nine kids, a dog and two cats”
West interrupted, “That cat just had kittens and I’m allergic to cats, so Jesus was with me,” which drew laughter from the group.
Smiley called the night “a wonderful evening.” He explained that at each stop on the 18-city tour, Smiley and West have been spending the night with families “getting to know what it was like.”
As he continued telling the story, the famed broadcaster broke into a smile as he said, “You could feel the love. All these little kids.”
He then lamented, “Dr. West and I then got into bed last night in these bunk beds and I asked Dr. West how long it had been since he slept in a bunk bed. He took the top bunk and I took the bottom bunk.”
Smiley turned to West, asking, “How long has it been?” to which West replied, “About a half a century.”
Smiley then told the crowd of his childhood memories where he was the oldest of ten kids and slept on the bottom bunk. “It was kind of a flashback with Doc on the top bunk and me on the bottom bunk. The funny part was after all the cameras left and the microphones disappeared, Doc and I got in bed, he climbed up top and I got on the bottom bunk and turned out the light, the funny part was then we started talking. It took me right back to my brother, when you talk and somebody dozes off and the next thing you know the sun is coming up. It was a wonderful experience.”
His tone then changed as Smiley ended by saying, “It was a tale of two cities, our stay here in Columbus last night. You know, over the last twenty-four hours, we’ve seen a tale of two cities, a tale of two views, a tale of two opinions, as it were, about how in this country, we’re going to teach people about poverty, give them opportunities so they don’t end up being in poverty. Walking back in the building, after talking with this white sister on the sidewalk, it gave me some clarity that this is what America is up against.”
Smiley then added that he was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and considered himself “a native.”
“I still have cousins here so I come here quite a lot,” he said.
Through out the tour, Smiley has been quoted as saying “The new poor are the former middle class.” Smiley once again rattled off his now-infamous quote and added, “More and more, people who were days ago, weeks ago, months ago, just a couple years ago, middle class, now they’re amongst the poor. People think that this is an anti-Obama campaign. This isn’t anti-Obama. We respect the president, we love the president, we think the president ought to do a little more.”
Gaining momentum, Smiley told the crowd, “I hate the fact that people think poverty is color coded. People think poverty and people think black and brown. How do we lift people up, of all races, of all creeds, out of poverty?”
Dr. West then paused and took a long look around the room. West told the rapt crowd, “Columbus, Mississippi is the birthplace of the greatest lyrical playwright in the history of the country. His major theme is those who escape from reality. Escape from history like Blanch Dubois was the American Hamlet in A Street Car Named Desire. The engagement with reality, the engagement with history and engagement with memory, requires an engagement with poverty. And so the blues, which is the greatest art form in the country, comes out of Mississippi. It’s an engagement with history, an engagement with history, an engagement with poverty and a reliance against it. Endurance to fight back. This is a love tour. The love tour that fights back. And that sense is true to the blues. Tennessee Williams was a white literary blues man. He learned a whole lot from the blues, from black people. So to be in Columbus where he was born and then have his legacy connected with this city, in many ways is thoroughly consistent with what this tour is all about.”
The focus then shifted to the director of Prairie Opportunity, Terricia Jones, who informed the media personalities that in recent months, Prairie has had an influx of “non-traditional clients.” With a budget cut of 250,000 dollars and a client base of seven counties, “we’re having to do more with less,” she said.
Brenda Banner, a Prairie recipient, turned to Smiley and said, “I’m an educated woman. I moved from Atlanta to be closer to my family but…” Banner trailed off as she looked down and took a deep breath. Regaining her composure, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard, but I have a lot of faith. It has not been an easy ride, it’s been rough, but I have faith.”
West interjected, “That’s the best part of Mississippi — family.”
The group then heard from Joann Cotton, a women in her early fifties who claims her age has been a major deterrent in her finding a job. With a husband who is also unemployed and on disability Cotton says the family can’t afford to buy her husband’s medicine. “We buy some of it, but we can’t afford to buy it all. We’re fighting foreclosure. We went from earning $60,000 to $15,000 overnight. I’ve got a marketing degree and I’ve sent out 300 resumes in three years. I’m fifty-four years old. You feel worthless, and it’s depressing as hell.”
Cotton then ended by saying, “I want to work. That’s all I want to do. Let me work.”
Smiley and West concluded the morning’s meeting and said that for the next year they will continue to talk about poverty on their show, ending only with the presidential election.
Smiley addressed the crowd, saying, “Thank you for sharing your story with us. I hope you understand what this does for us, in helping us to tell the story. I’m not the president, I’m not God, obviously, what I am is a broadcaster. What I do have access to is a microphone. What I do have is access to cameras. What I do have is a platform. The longer I live and the more emboldened I become, the more I see, poverty in all people of all creeds, predominately African-American people, but the more I see that the more angry I become. And that’s why I left the studio, that’s why I left the studio, that’s why I called my friends, called Dr. West and we hit the road to get this stuff captured. So that we can tell the story. Telling what we see. It’s the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak.”
Dr. West closed the conversation by saying, “It’s about loving people, when you love people you make them a priority. We’re trying to put pressure on Congress, pressure on the president, to declare war on poverty. Why? Because we fundamentally believe that as human beings and as Christians, that every person has a sanctity and a dignity no matter what color they are, no matter what gender they are, and they ought to be able to live with decency. That sounds simple but it’s really revolutionary. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That sounds simple, but if you really live your life, that’s revolutionary. That’s going to turn the world around.”
Columbus was the next to last stop on the week long Poverty Tour with the tour ending in Memphis, TN.
Smiley and West say they will check back with Columbus and those who spoke from Prairie Opportunity in the coming months.