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Top 20 US Progressives: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley

Poverty activists.

One of the first guests on Tavis Smiley's discussion programme on National Public Radio back in 2002 was the philosopher and political activist Cornel West. West had come on to the show to talk about his impending departure from Harvard University, where he had been first professor of African-American studies and then university professor.

The previous year, West - who at all times affects a uniform of black three-piece suit, white shirt, black tie and modestly proportioned afro - had become embroiled in a dispute with the Harvard president and former US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers. Summers was unhappy that he had been neglecting serious scholarship in favour of political campaigning and other activities, including recording a hip-hop CD.

West rejected the charges and told Smiley that Summers had picked on the "wrong Negro". The Harvard boss was, he said, "the Ariel Sharon of American higher education". He left Harvard in April 2002 and moved to Princeton, where he had taken his PhD. West's alma mater decided that it could put up with his campaigning and appearances on Smiley's show, which eventually led to the two men co-presenting a nationally syndicated weekly programme for PRI and television slots on PBS.

In November 2007, West appeared at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem at an event to support Barack Obama, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He described Obama as a "good brother" and told the audience members that they were "on the right side of history". However, scepticism and disappointment set in on Brother Barack's election as president. When Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after only nine months in office, West was back on Smiley's show cautioning against hubris. "Following Brother Martin King, we know that peace is not the absence of conflict," he said. "Peace is the presence of justice . . . So now the whole world is watching, saying, 'What are the ways in which, as president, you will be a promoter of justice here at home for poor people, for working people?'"

West got the answer he feared when Obama appointed Summers as an economic adviser. "Has Obama already become so comfortable with the establishment that you had to have an economist who was legitimate to the establishment in order for him to get his regime off the ground?" he asked. "If that's the kind of argument you have, then put it forward. But don't tell me you're a progressive." The rupture with a man he once called "brother, companion and comrade" seemed complete.

In October, Smiley and West embarked on the Poverty Tour, a nine-day road trip of 18 cities across nine states of the Midwest and the South, inspired by the words of Rev King (West describes himself as "a Martin man"). "I choose to identify with the underprivileged," King said. "I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity." If Obama won't speak for the poor, Smiley and West say, somebody else will have to.

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Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama