Tavis Smiley Cornelius SAVED Black Culture

2/1/2012 4:50 PM PST

Tavis Smiley -- Don Cornelius Saved Black Culture

Talk show host Tavis Smiley believes "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius was responsible for saving black culture in the 70s and 80s -- telling TMZ, the late producer was "our cultural ambassador" in that era.

Tavis tells us, "Don Cornelius was our cultural ambassador when black music, when black dance, when black fashion were under-appreciated in this country."

Tavis adds, "I think that Don Cornelius' real contributions were never really appreciated ... Sometimes, it takes something tragic like this to really appreciate the contributions one has made ... I hate to see it happen like this ... He will be missed."

If you don't recognize the other guy in the clip -- shame on you -- it's famed activist and philosopher Dr. Cornel West ... who adds, "I just pray for his family. I love Brother Don Cornelius."