African American History Month: Learn about Cornel West

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John F. Kennedy High School alumnus Cornel Ronald West (class of 1970) is an American philosopher, academic, social activist, author and public intellectual.

West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in South Sacramento. His mother, Irene B. West, was a teacher and principal in the Elk Grove Unified School District, where a school is named in her honor. His father, Clifton Louis West, was a general contractor for the Defense Department.

As a teen, West marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at Kennedy, where he was class president (he also ran varsity track). He later wrote that, in his youth, he admired “the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party…and the livid black theology of James Cone.”

In 1970, after graduating from Kennedy, he enrolled at Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude in 1973. He later earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Princeton.

West is currently a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He has written more than 20 books (“Race Matters,” “Democracy Matters” among them) and is a frequent guest commentator on various TV talk shows.

“I grew up in the Glen Elder neighborhood of south Sacramento, and always felt I am who I am because somebody loved me – my parents, my older brother Clifton, my baseball coach and the late Rev. Willie P. Cook of Shiloh Baptist Church,” West told the Sacramento Bee in 2014 while participating in a protest in Ferguson, Missouri. “You express love by respecting, correcting and protecting.”