Forty-five minutes before Dr. Cornel West was due to speak at the Wilma Wednesday evening, the line to see him snaked down the block and around the corner. Seating was first come, first served, and the 1,400-seat theater was at capacity.
West, a longtime philosopher, author and civil rights activist, had come to Missoula for the first installment of this year’s University of Montana President’s Lecture Series. Its title: “The Fight for the Soul of America.”
“We live in a grim moment,” the Harvard philosophy professor told the audience at the outset.
“It’s a sad moment, but it’s a moment when we can engage in significant bounce-back, if in fact we are clear enough in our thinking.”
Speaking with an auctioneer’s speed, a preacher’s soaring and diving intonation, and no script, West wove between the Socratic and Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, advice for the University of Montana’s students, African-American and U.S. history — and condemnations of its current politics, social values and economic order.
“The measure of any nation is the degree to which the scope of callousness and the depth of indifference are opposing at any historical moment,” he inveighed. “ … Donald Trump is not to be fetishized as some individual. He expresses something deep in the history of this nation and deep in the history of the modern world. He’s not by himself.
“I tell myself I’m a revolutionary Christian. What does that mean? It means often my fellow citizens, fellow Christians don’t want to recognize me as one of them oftentimes.”
West has been outspoken on racial issues for nearly four decades, defining himself as a “Christian Democratic Socialist.”
“He has made a career living the life of the mind in public, often with a bit of controversy,” Tobin Miller Shearer, director of UM's African-American Studies Program, told an undergraduate class Tuesday.
Miller Shearer's tried twice unsuccessfully to bring West to UM’s campus, before the administration and faculty finally succeeded in making it happen this year.
Western Montana stands to gain from West's visit, Miller Shearer predicted. In the 2010 Census, only .8% of Montanans — the fewest of any state — identified as African-American.
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“But there is a history of strong African-American presence in the state,” he said, one that flourished with black newspapers, churches and social organizations here in the first few decades of the 20th century, before fading in the face of racism and socioeconomic changes.
“We want to connect that past with the present,” Miller Shearer continued. He’s involved with a local coalition, Missoula’s IDEA for Racial Justice, composed of several organizations working to honor the city’s black history and spur discussions on racial issues. “That kind of activity creates safe space, sends a message of inclusion, and welcome that's only amplified by someone like Dr. West being with us for an evening.”
Jamar Galbreath agrees. He’s the associate director of program innovation for Empower MT, and a coordinator for Missoula’s IDEA for Racial Justice. This past year, they’ve been working to create a mural to honor St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which once stood on the 1400 Block of Phillips Street and, more broadly, to get Missoulians talking about race.
“I think that having Dr. West come to Missoula is an incredible honor,” Galbreath said. “ … but it’s also an opportunity to engage folks in conversations about race” — although, he quickly added, a big-name visitor shouldn’t be the only reason for discussing race.
UM’s Miller Shearer sees another valuable reason for his visit: “We are close to and adjacent to active white supremacy groups.” The Southern Poverty Law Center currently lists seven “hate groups” active in Montana. “We need to be standing up to those anti-democratic forces in our society, those racist forces in our society, and one of the things we can do (about) that is to bring nationally recognized African-American speakers to our community, welcome them, celebrate them, and expose people to their ideas.”
“You don’t return hate with hate. It just adds more hatred in the world,” West told the Missoulian before his talk. “You certainly have to fortify yourself, and convince them that that kind of hatred is not just wrong, it’s self-destructive to them and self-destructive for the country, the communities in which they live in.”
The low African-American percentage of Montana’s population was reflected in The Wilma’s capacity audience. “I notice you don’t have a whole lot of chocolate in Montana,” West said, drawing laughs. “I understand, it’s cold up here, but you don’t have to be chocolate to be soulful.”
He lauded a towering figure from Montana’s past — Jeannette Rankin — for her principled stands, along with two current Missoulians: Robert River and Fernanda Menna, owners of Imagine Nation Brewing. They had painted West alongside other luminaries on their brewery’s wall in honor of the visit, and shown him around earlier that day.
“Oh, we had a time,” West said with a smile, speaking with the Missoulian beforehand. “I was so deeply moved. We’ve got two persons there who create a center that brings people together, concerned about integrity, honesty, decency.
“That’s not just the best of Montana, that’s the best of America, that’s the best of the human spirit.”