The Poverty Tour – Part 1

Tavis begins this week of shows on poverty in the U.S. with a theme of “Suffering to Speak,” in which he and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West explain why they felt it was important to embark upon their 18-city, 11-state Poverty Tour this past summer.


Tavis: Even before the most recent numbers came out about the growing ranks of the poor in this country we decided to spend some time this summer getting to know the real people behind the sobering poverty stats.

Princeton professor and best-selling author, Dr. Cornel West, joined us on our poverty tour across the U.S., and in tonight’s first episode – we call this one “Suffering to Speak -” we look at what motivated us to take this tour in the first place and the personal face of an American tragedy.

[Begin film clip]

Elmer Nickleberry: We didn’t have nobody stand up for us. Only (unintelligible) from top to bottom was the (unintelligible).

Rose Tainter: Our lands are just vanishing. And most of those people around here don’t hardly – there’s no fluent speakers around here.

Willie J. R. Fleming: There’s a new poor in America right now. (Unintelligible) take the old poor and the new poor and put them together.

Tavis Smiley: Corporations get away again. Wall Street got away again. The banks got away again. (Applause) This entire piece of legislation is on the backs of the poor.

Dr. Cornel West: Well, you see, Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t in the success, it was in the greatness. If your success is defined as being well-adjusted to injustice and well-adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough that we have (unintelligible).

Tavis Smiley: And the more I see what people are going through, all people of all races, of all colors, of all creeds, the more I see that, the more angry it makes me, and that’s why I left the studio, that’s why I gave up my vacation time, that’s why I called my friends, called Dr. West, and we hit the road to get this stuff captured.

I mean, we say all the time that it’s the telling of truth, it’s the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak.

Tavis: This is a nation of great abundance and great people. And yet somehow at the same time, great inequality and great suffering. Forty-three years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. our nation has immeasurable prosperity for a handful while huge swaths of the citizenry are asked to do more with less, or simply disappear.

To bring the focus to the suffering my team and I traveled 3,000 miles by plane and bus across this country over a week’s time. I shared this journey with my friend, Dr. Cornel West.

Dr. Cornel West: Yes.

Tavis: We met those struggling on issues of education.

Male Three: It’s obvious that for poor people who want to be educated there are so many hurdles.

Tavis: On issues of housing.

Male Four: Morals. It should be a moral right to have a place.

Tavis: Food access. We met with labor.

Luis Larin: You can also benefit the workers.

Tavis: We met with veterans.

Male Six: One in three service members who are deployed will suffer the effects of post-traumatic stress.

Tavis: We met with groups taking unprecedented action.

Willie J. R. Fleming: Because we want to match up homeless people and put people in this housing. That, that’s the key.

Tavis: We met with organizers trying to continue the legacy of Dr. King.

Woman Two: I mean, this is ground zero for poverty and has been for years.

Tavis: We met with the homeless and the forgotten on the fringes of society.

Woman Three: They (unintelligible) about them, they won’t try to (unintelligible) they’ll try to keep them at the bottom.

Tavis: We held town hall meetings with thousands in attendance, and faced the fire from those who disagreed with us.

Audience Heckling: (Unintelligible)

Tavis Smiley: Obstructionist? This is not Detroit that I know. (Shouting from audience) They’re the party of no, the party of no, they don’t.

Tavis: But we started where we should have – on a Native American reservation.

Rose Tainter: Our lands are just vanishing. When I left my home I was 27 years old. Everybody spoke Ojibwa, even the little kids. Now there’s only what, a hundred, maybe. Maybe more. There may be 400 in all the reservation.

Tavis: The reservation surrounds the tribe’s sacred body of water, but even here there is great disparity and the trampling of the Native American culture and tradition. The choicest land plots were taken by the government and sold for million-dollar summer homes to the wealthy elite of the Midwest. Ancient Native American burial mounds, like one seen here, are now in the backyards of non-natives.

Rose Trainer: (Unintelligible) of the white men that came into our country and took our land away, took our pride away and our language and our ancestors were forced not to speak their language. (Speaks in foreign language)

Willie J. R. Fleming: And there’s a new poor in America right now.

Tavis: As we will examine over this week, the housing crisis has endangered the American dream – that every family can own their own home. In Chicago, before our town hall meeting at St. Sabina’s, we toured public housing, in which Dr. King and his family once lived, to bring attention to the issue.

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless there are more people on the public housing waiting list just in the city of Chicago than there are available public housing units in the entire state of Illinois. All the while, entire blocks in the Windy City remain abandoned.

Rev. Dr. Michael L. Pfleger: Remember, this area right here is the second, according to the “Chicago Reporter,” the second most unemployed community neighborhood in the country. The only one that beats it is in Detroit.

Tavis: In light of this contradiction, groups like the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign have organized to match these people-less houses with people who need it most.

Willie J. R. Fleming: The conditions in which our government will respond to the crisis (unintelligible) the Anti-Eviction Campaign was born. We got folks from different parts of the city, the Black community, white community and Latino community had saw that their housing was leaving.

Our struggle here relates to education cuts, divestment in labor and housing, right? So all of these struggles are intertwined.

Tavis: Forty-three years ago Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, while standing in solidarity with the sanitation workers’ union. We met with some of their original members.

Elmer Nickleberry: It hurt me when he got killed. Yeah. I don’t like to talk about it too much, because it do something to me.

Dr. Cornel West: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Elmer Nickleberry: I respected him, and I respect him right now. That’s what made me stand up to be a man, because of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We didn’t have nothing. We were just some poor person, sanitation was poor. And he helped us (unintelligible) going back, we’re picking up (unintelligible) and everything.

And we didn’t have nobody to fight for us. And he came and fought for us. He marched with us, he (unintelligible) for us. He died for us.

Tavis: Sadly, workers face a slow decline of rights and benefits in a system that seems to trample the poor, the old and the unorganized.

Luis Larin: They treat the worker like disposable.

Tavis: Luis Larin of United Workers.

Luis Larin: There is this system of poverty wages, human rights violations and (unintelligible). It’s not one place, it’s not one restaurant, it’s not one employer, it’s not one manager. It’s a systemic issue that we confront.

Dr. Cornel West: Washington criminalized, poor people demonized. I don’t care what color you are, but it’s poor people as a whole who have been demonized. The truth is (unintelligible) as Brother Tavis says. The condition of suffering to speak, and the only way suffering speaks is if you have that energy and that (unintelligible) energy has to do with how deep your love is. (Unintelligible) We just don’t have enough (unintelligible) who love poor people.

Tavis: Is this a system of disparity, a system designed to create poverty? Has the housing crisis and the jobs crisis led to a new form of poverty in America? What will it take for our country to understand the situation we find ourselves in? Can the system change to help the people, or as Dr. King asked over 40 years ago, do the people need to change the system?

[End film clip]

Tavis: So each night this week we’ll bring you a new installment of our poverty tour. All of these terrific pieces that you’ll see this week were put together by a group called the Media Mobilizing Project. In addition to their quality work we chose Media Mobilizing because some of the men and women who work on projects like the one you just saw come from the ranks of the poor themselves – disenfranchised and even homeless.

So we thank Media Mobilizing for their hard work and dedication to this very important cause.

“Female One:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” Brought to you by the AARP Foundation.

“Announcer:” WK Kellogg Foundation – engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at

“Announcer:” The Annie E. Casey Foundation – helping to build better futures for America’s kids and families.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm