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Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity

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Award winning talk-show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West remain committed to placing poverty at the forefront of the 2012 political discourse.

As a follow up to their highly successful poverty tour this past summer, Smiley and West will host a nationally televised conversation at George Washington University Thursday evening, "Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity."

For West, the significance of the conversation raises additional questions. "Which direction the country is to go, what type of nation do we choose to be, and what kind of people do we choose to be," he asked philosophically.

And those questions "have everything to do with how we treat the weak and vulnerable in society," he said.

Overt use of the word poverty, or its myriad synonyms, has invoked a bipartisan prohibition. Elected officials opt instead to use the amorphous term "middle class" to obfuscate the reality that so many Americans face.

It is much easier to blame the poor for America's economic problems than the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act that for 66 years prohibited banks from returning to the practices that fueled the Great Depression. But after its repeal in 1999, America was once again on the brink of a second Depression by 2007.

Why does there seem to be more angst toward the poor than individuals like Sheldon Adelson, who recently wrote a $5 million check for Newt Gingrich's superfund, underscoring the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling?

When I posed this question to Smiley, he unequivocally responded, "The poor don't matter!"

He lamented how during the three 2008 presidential debates the word poor was not uttered once.

According to Smiley, as the number of those who fall into poverty's grip increases, they remain inconsequential as a topic worthy of serious political discourse.

"The bottom line," Smiley stated, "Our society cannot survive under the weight of extreme poverty," he said.

The efforts of Smiley and West are sandwiched between two of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s book titles: Why We Can't Wait and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community.

Why We Can't wait, written in the aftermath of the 1963 Birmingham campaign, brilliantly articulated black Americans' growing frustration by being systematically left off of America's ledger to be included in "We the People of the United States in order to form a more perfect union."

Are we not witnessing a wider segment of America, with varying political affiliations, increasingly frustrated? Poverty in America has created a multi-cultural version of Ralph Ellison's epic novel, Invisible Man -- they are physically visible but their humanity is tragically invisible.

If there remains an unspoken Faustian bargain to not hear the cries of the poor, what should we expect when they reach the "Fannie Lou Hamer moment?" Hamer, a civil rights heroine, famously opined: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Where Do We Go From Here was King's last book. It was written as he was preparing for his Poor People's Campaign. And it also serves as the central question today.

For all of our commemorations, holidays and revisionist history, it becomes easy to forget that King died in Memphis helping the poor. He saw addressing poverty as key to addressing America's social challenges.

In addition to the national conversation, Smiley and West have co-authored a book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, due out in April that seeks to answer King's question.

The book will include the following three action steps:

• Poverty must be made a priority

• There must be a plan to eradicate poverty, which would include a White House-led conference

• There must be leadership to sell the aforementioned process to the American people.

Regardless of our political affiliations, let us hope that Smiley and West are successful in making poverty part of the presidential campaign. "The future of this democracy is inextricably linked to how seriously we take the legacy of Martin Luther King," West said.

The conversation will be broadcast live on CSPAN Thursday January 12 and rebroadcast for three nights on Tavis Smiley on PBS beginning Monday, January 16.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of the Forthcoming book: 1963: The of Hope and Hostility. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit the website 1963hopeandhostility.com