2024 Presidential Candidate Cornel West ’74’s Life as a ‘Love Warrior’


{shortcode-34e8f2b114f673286f89210f17c56443a91cd7ed}ornel R. West ’74 brought a book with him just in case the party quieted down.

“He went to parties,” said Sylvester Monroe ’73, West’s Leverett House roommate. “He was a really good dancer, but one of the things I remember is even at parties, sometimes there would be a lull in the music and Cornel would have a book.”

“He always had a book,” Monroe added.

It was in character for West, who was known to be a diligent student. Throughout his time at Harvard, he took high-level classes in philosophy and religion even during his first semester as a freshman.


Partially because his scholarship money was limited, Monroe said West took multiple additional classes each semester to graduate early in addition to working as a dishwasher and mailman while living in Leverett House.

“I think he took seven or eight classes in one year,” Monroe said. “We didn’t ever know that he was taking that big a load. And he still went to parties. He still hung out with us. And he got all A's.”

After three years, in 1973, West graduated from Harvard a year early — at just 19. Just four years later, he was an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary.

After UTS, West subsequently held a professorship at Princeton University before arriving at Harvard in 1994. Just four years later, he would be appointed a University Professor — the highest degree of distinction for faculty.

In 2002, after a dispute with then-President Lawrence H. Summers, West would leave Cambridge, before returning again from 2017 to 2021. He would then leave again, this time after Harvard’s decision to deny him tenure.

He has also become an extremely prominent political activist, advising top political candidates and speaking out on issues of race, foreign policy, and domestic issues. He has published 20 books, produced music with Prince, and made guest appearances in two “Matrix” movies.

But despite his elevated public profile as an activist— West is currently running in the 2024 U.S. presidential race as an independent — he maintains that academia was always at the center of his life’s mission.

“I took ‘Veritas’ very seriously,” West said in an interview with The Crimson. “It's always a very fallible, painful, and joyful quest all at the same time.”

With polling numbers at or below two percent and plans to “abolish poverty” and “dismantle the U.S. empire”, he is more concerned with fighting a philosophical battle than the presidency itself.

“We’ve got to somehow get beyond hatred and revenge and talk seriously about truth and justice,” West said.

“We have to bear witness to that in highly visible places, including running for president,” he added.

‘Having the Time of My Life’

West’s professional career panned out as he planned it at seventeen.

“I was having the time of my life freshman year knowing that I was going to be a professor one day,” West said.

Originally from Tusla, Oklahoma, West grew up in Sacramento, the heart of the Black Panther Party during the 1960s. When he came to Harvard, he maintained close ties to local Party organizing but was committed to his classes and his plan to graduate early.

Along with volunteering with the Black Panther Party’s school breakfast program in Jamaica Plain, West was on Dorm Crew, where he cleaned the Wigglesworth dorm bathrooms and juggled his intense course load that was preparing him for a career in higher education.

Fifty-four years later, West can still name half a dozen professors from his college years at Harvard who convinced him to pursue academia — a list that includes notable professors like John Rawls and Martin Kilson, the first Black professor tenured at Harvard.

Former Harvard professor Preston N. Williams still remembers West as an “extremely bright student” in his class on Christian ethics at the Harvard Divinity School.

“Cornel suggests that I am the person who suggested that he go into academics and get a doctorate,” Williams said. “That’s due to the fact that after taking my class, he wanted to write some papers on some matters dealing with Hegel, enlightenment, or understanding of God during that particular period.”

“He wanted to know if I would read them if he wrote them,” he said. “So he wrote the papers, I read them, and I told him he ought to consider going into the academic profession.”

But even at college, West balanced academia and activism.

“I imagine that he early on came to the notion that he would do academics but he would also be an activist. He was always oriented in that direction from the beginning,” Williams said.

As an undergraduate, West was co-president of a Black student group and was one of two dozen Black students that occupied Massachusetts Hall for a week in 1972 to protest Harvard’ decision not to divest from oil companies aiding Portugal during the Angolan War of Independence.

“We had 3,000 people marching that weekend,” West said. “I had to get out of the office, take my Hebrew exam, and then get back in there again.”

‘Build on the Past’

While West said Harvard has been “a profound blessing” in his life, he has been an outspoken critic of the institution for the last five decades.

When West resigned in 2021, he wrote that the “shadow of Jim Crow” was cast over the University, writing that his resignation was the result of a “cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration.”


West’s attendance at pro-Palestine protests and encampments around the country in recent months have made him especially popular among young voters who overwhelmingly disapprove of U.S. President Joe Biden’s handling of the conflict.

In early April, West, a former faculty advisor to activist groups, took a break from his campaign trail to speak at a pro-Palestine rally outside Harvard’s gates.

“Harvard University, like any other institution in the American empire, is shot through with commodification, is shot through with corporatization, is shot through with marketization,” West said. “It has legacies of white supremacy, male supremacy shot through it too.”

“We will be countervailing forces against it,” he added.

He said there are certainly similarities between protests in the 1970s and 2024, but that younger activists should not let the model of the past constrain them.

“You can’t emulate and imitate the past,” West said. “You’ve got to build on the past and find your own voices and styles and do it in your own way.”

West said he was encouraged by watching the current pro-Palestine student groups protest for divestment.

“I'm always encouraged by any group that’s standing up for justice, including the young brothers and sisters of all colors at Harvard in the last few months and years,” West said.

“There is no doubt that the genocide in Gaza is a pivotal moment,’’ he added. “We find out what the moral conscience of the American empire really looks like.”

‘It’s Your Fault’

But when asked why decided to run for president, his answer has nothing to do with the presidency.

“What it really comes down to is I am a small part of a great tradition of Black people who have been so thoroughly hated but produce love warriors every generation, not just hate back,” West said.

His campaign, though, has angered many Democrats over fears that he will draw a meaningful number of votes away from Biden come November. West said he owes Biden nothing.

“You can’t just make a weak case and say, ‘Well, Brother West is making a stronger case so people are attracted to West but he’s stealing my votes,’” West said.

“No, you're making a weak case, brother,” he added. “It’s your fault.”

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.