Cornel West tells Chattanooga audience love is key to restoring civility to public discourse

Political activist Cornel West speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in Detroit, Friday, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

One of the nation's preeminent educators and authors told a Chattanooga audience Friday that love is key to restoring civility to American public discourse.

"Love is not reducible to agreement on public policy," said Cornel West, professor emeritus at Princeton University. "You have people in your own family who [you feel] are politically wrong on some issues, but you love them anyway.

"We have to learn how to disagree in such a way that we can still acknowledge our common humanity."

West delivered his remarks virtually as part of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Martin Luther King Day 2022 celebration. Stacy Lightfoot, the university's vice chancellor for diversity and engagement, said the school traditionally honors the late civil-rights icon's memory on the federal holiday bearing his name - and again a few days later.

In addition to his post at Princeton, West holds the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. According to UTC officials, he has written 20 books, received more than 20 honorary degrees and made numerous television and film appearances.

"Dr. West is a global figure who's had his share of courageous conversations," said Lightfoot, who moderated a one-hour discussion with him. "He is an icon, a scholar, a legend - someone I followed as a college student hungry to learn and understand racial issues and how I could use my gifts to inspire change."

The title of UTC's observance was "Reflecting on Dr. King's Message of Civility to Inspire Current Generations." West sought to buttress his point on love's role by invoking U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the high court's conservative mainstays for more than 30 years.

"I can love Clarence Thomas and agree with that brother 2% of the time," West said. "He's a beautiful Black man who, I think, too often sides with the wealthy and the strong against the vulnerable and oppressed.

"So I have deep and profound disagreements with brother Clarence, but I can still acknowledge that he's a human being, made in the image of God, and he is somebody I can have some kind of connection to. We can be political foes and still make the human connection."

When it comes to King's message on civility inspiring current generations, West sounded a more pessimistic note.

"[Civility] is what we're losing today because there's so much distrust," he said. "What we are dealing with right now is the gangsterization of the country.

"When you're a hypocrite, you're at least saying that you know there are standards - you just fall short. But a gangster has no standards. You can't have civility without trust, and you can't have trust unless you feel someone is tied to something bigger than them.

"But if you're a gangster, it's just survival of the slickest."

West, 68, said he was 10 years old when he met King in Sacramento, California.

"The thing that came across to me more than anything else was that he was the real thing," West said. "Martin spoke from his soul. He was willing to live - and die - based on what he said.

"He wasn't posing. He was the real thing, and I could feel that in his words. In his spirit."

Asked by Lightfoot if he felt King's overarching message "has been realized," West replied quickly.

"Not at all," he said. "I think his words were too much for the country, and that's why they shot him down like a dog.

"The truth he was putting forth was just too heavy. The condition of truth is to allow the suffering to speak. He was allowing all the suffering to speak."

Contact Bob Gary at news@timesfreepress.com.