Philadelphians are quite accustomed to seeing news makers, but several normally nonchalant denizens were surprised to see scholar and civil rights activist Cornel West strolling down Vine Street on Friday morning. West had just exited a cab arriving from Washington, D.C. and would be en route to New York after an afternoon engagement at the Free Library of Philadelphia to promote his latest book, “Black Prophetic Fire (Beacon Press, $25.95).”
The confusion was only natural as it was only days earlier the former Princeton University professor was reported among 13 people arrested during a protest at Ferguson, Mo. police headquarters. The “Moral Monday” protests had been held to call attention to anger over police treatment of minorities. Ferguson is roiled by the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, Black 18-year-old, by a white officer.
“Hey Cornel! I thought you were in jail?” said one man. With equal parts of humor and head-nod understanding, West responded: “I WAS in jail! But, I’m here now.”
West explained his arrest four days earlier was an example of his concern for the youth across the country.
“It was the love,” explained West. “And we just want our young folks to know that a whole host of us old school brothers just love them to death and we don’t want to see them murdered to death; we want to see them loved to death. And that love takes the form of us protecting them, we want to respect them and we also want to correct them. That’s what love does.”
West continued: “Arbitrary police power has been employed all across the country,” he explained. “It’s in Philly; it’s in New York; it’s in Chicago and it’s in Ferguson. But Ferguson now has a chance of becoming the Birmingham of our times. It is a catalyst for the awakening — especially for the young people. There has been too much sleepwalking.”
West now teaches at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, and has a long history with the Delaware Valley.
As he surveyed the sold-out lunchtime audience of every hue and age at the library, he conducted a roll-call of fellow local activists — including Dr. Anthony Monteiro, professor Chad Lassiter and MOVE member Pam Africa — reserving his biggest greeting for literary legend Sonia Sanchez. When he spotted the 80-year-old petite poet in the front row, he bowed down in honor, and later the 61-year-old professor would conclude his 50-minute discussion by bounding off the stage to grip her up in a full body hug.
While there were smiles shared, the scholar made it clear he was on a continued mission to provide a fresh perspective on six revolutionary African-American leaders: Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells.
“They are giants, absolute and our young people have to access them — young folk of all colors,” West said. “Because you are talking about the highest levels of spiritual excellence, the highest levels of moral courage, the highest levels of political vision, that’s what its about.”
As the line of inter-generational people gathered for signed copies of his book, West referenced a Ghanian concept regarding the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future: “I love Philadelphia ... Keep track of the landmarks, keep track of the high moments. It’s like Sankofa: you’ve got to look back before you look forward.”
TheAssociated Press contributed to this report