Cornel West Says Civil Rights Leaders Have Failed The Movement
In an exclusive interview with The Real News, Cornel West argues civil rights leaders have failed to hold president Obama accountable - August 27, 2013
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 books. He is best known for his classic Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He appears frequently on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span as well as on his dear Brother, Tavis Smiley’s PBS TV Show. He can be heard weekly with Tavis Smiley on "Smiley & West", the national public radio program distributed by Public Radio International (PRI).
OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: On August 23, tens of thousands of people rallied at the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew a quarter million people to the nation's capital and was a key moment in the civil rights movement. The Real News' Jaisal Noor spoke to Dr. Cornel West after the march.
CORNEL WEST, PHILOSOPHER, ACTIVIST, AND AUTHOR: We had very low quality leadership today on the stage. We saw bona fide apologists for the Obama administration. There was no serious talk about Wall Street. There was no serious talk about the new Jim Crow, no serious talk about drones, no serious talk about the U.S. security state, no serious talk about the massive surveillance state. It was about just voters' rights and maybe some vague reference to jobs. Martin Luther King Jr. turns over in his grave. He turns over in his grave.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Did you take part in the march today? Why or why not?
WEST: Well, no, no, no, no. My spirits are with the people, but I wanted to make sure I heard every word of the speakers, because I've got to be on television later on and I want to make sure I have a sense of all the different voices. But, unfortunately, the rich prophetic and progressive voices of the past and present were pushed completely to the margin and we ended up with voices of those on the Obama plantation.
NOOR: What you mean by that?
WEST: Those who are wedded to Obama won't say a critical word about the Obama administration and won't say a critical word about the shortcomings [incompr.] of the White House and executive branch.
NOOR: Now, I was there for the beginning of the march and I heard a lot of references to drones, mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, but no words on how to address those problems and what hasn't been done to address those problems.
WEST: I didn't hear a reference to any of those issues from the major speakers. So you heard it early on?
WEST: Oh, but that's good news, then. That's very good. I didn't hear one word for what was projected for the American people. You had to be at the march to hear--what was it? Two-minute presentation?
NOOR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so at the--so what did the march 50 years ago mean as far as economic justice, racial justice, civil rights? What did the civil rights movement mean for public education, for housing? And 50 years later, are those same messages still [incompr.]
WEST: Well, 50 years ago we were dealing with an American terrorism call Jim Crow, and you had a social movement that was expanding, you had a social movement that was intensifying, and you had Martin King, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other voices emerging. Today you have a black leadership that is captive and deferential to the Obama administration that has most visible presence. You've got voices on the side--Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, and others. But for the most part it is so tied to the Obama administration, we cannot get any truth-telling. Not at all.
NOOR: Now, I interviewed about ten people at the march [incompr.] people that had taken part in the march in '63, and they were there, and they themselves were not willing to be critical of the current administration. But [crosstalk]
WEST: That's the whole atmosphere.
NOOR: --show lack of leadership [crosstalk]
WEST: Absolutely. An atmosphere has been created that is so protective that people can't be free to speak their minds, to speak in the name of justice when the Obama administration falls short, as with drones, the captivity to Wall Street, silence on new Jim Crow, and so on.
NOOR: And why is it important that the leadership of this march address those issues that were like you said. He didn't mention Wall Street [crosstalk]
WEST: Those are the major issues of our day. Those are the issues of the American empire. Those are the issues that the world itself is looking for leaders and black leaders to speak to.
NOOR: And the fact that Al Sharpton, the National Action Network, they ran this march, they give out the press credentials--talk about his position on things like housing, on public education. He supported Race to the Top.
WEST: No. I mean, you know, he's my dear brother, but he is a bona fide house negro on the Obama plantation, and that's how house negroes behave. They don't want to hear the truth of the underside of their boss. It's just a fact.
NOOR: So one of the key components of the civil rights movement was fighting for civil rights and public education for everybody. Now--.
WEST: This brother right here would talk about public education.
NOOR: Well, I'll have to talk to you after that.
WEST: Interview this brother. Interview--he got something to say. Absolutely.
NOOR: So Dr. King believed in a universal public education [crosstalk]
WEST: Yes, he did.
NOOR: --everybody. Obama has endorsed Race to the Top competition, charter schools--great schools for some people, but not for everybody. Al Sharpton has endorsed that. So talk about the significance of that and the fact that voices that support public education for everybody, voices that support teachers unions, which were a huge part of the civil rights movement--. Dr. King--someone told me today Dr. King died fighting against the privatization of unions. So talk about [incompr.]
WEST: Well, he died fighting with sanitation workers to try to promote their dignity and that they have access to a living wage. But no, as I said before, I mean, unfortunately, brother Al Sharpton has fallen lockstep with the Obama administration. And when you're on the plantation, you don't oppose the master in the big house. It's just a fact.
So it's not just private education. Stop-and-frisk was the same way. This brother and I had to get arrested a year before they got the green light from the White House to fight stop-and-frisk because the mayor of New York City is such a close friend of the president.
NOOR: Now, you were part of the movement that put stop-and-frisk on the map.
WEST: Well, this brother here called it. We called it together. Yeah.
NOOR: You were part of that movement that got stop-and-frisk addressed by the media, this huge public reaction [incompr.] months after your arrest and others' arrests. It got addressed. And this movement rose and it get talked about. You had--I looked at this on Google News--50 mentions of stop-and-frisk three years before the arrests that you took part in, thousands of mentions afterwards. And public opinion turned against it. Public opinion was for stop-and-frisk before. It's against it now. You have--the judge ruled against stop-and-frisk. New York City has now passed the Community Safety Act, which bans racial profiling. Yet Obama has suggested that Ray Kelly be promoted [crosstalk] security. But talk about the significance of that [crosstalk]
WEST: No, Ray Kelly is the poster child for racial profiling in America. Barack Obama said, he's outstanding; his values are my values. So you can see the hypocrisy of calling, on the one hand, a critique--.
NOOR: What's your reaction to that? Yeah.
WEST: My reaction to it is outrage, 'cause I don't like hypocrisy. He talked about racial profiling in his own case in regard to his brother Trayvon Martin. Then he calls to appoint somebody who is the poster child for racial profiling to head homeland security. So it's ridiculous.