Over the last twenty years, I occasionally shared the limelight with Harry Belafonte, in the early 1990s in particular, as the campaigns on behalf of Haitian refugees denied asylum in the United States and democracy in Haiti joined to tilt the Clinton Administration’s hand towards democracy and human rights in Haiti. I met him twice over lunch, thanks to a common friend. The second time, we had a spirited discussion about Haiti and its leadership, the Bush Administration’s removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004, and the prospects of building a large international movement to support democracy in Haiti.
Although no longer as svelte as he was when he used to wow audiences with his charm, grace, singing, and good looks, Belafonte spoke with the wisdom of a man who had seen his share of injustice and faced them with the conviction that comes from a place deep within. So we argued, over a great lunch in an excellent atmosphere… and then parted. The best part for me came as we each started to go our separate ways. He stopped, turned around and said simply how much he enjoyed the discussion and appreciated my perspectives on Haiti.
Much has been written about Belafonte over the years. From the literature, I picked out an article published in 1995 by the Buffalo Reporter, the University paper, in which Belafonte reminisces of his involvement with the civil rights movement. We reproduce the story below.
Belafonte, tells of leadership role in fight against racism
By STEVE COX
March 2, 1995
Born in Jamaica, he was an immigrant son of a sailor "more drunk than sober and more abusive than embracive." His family tree is decorated with rumrunners and bookmakers. Struggling just to survive the violence at home and on the streets of New York, he never finished high school. He wound up literally clinging to life for three days after being run down by an automobile in Harlem.
That he survived at all is impressive. That he grew up to become a world-renowned artist, humanitarian, actor and civil rights activist is truly remarkable. He is Harry Belafonte and, though a remarkable success, Belafonte’s entire life has been consumed by his struggle against racism.
Belafonte delivered the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, sponsored by the James Fenton Lecture Foundation, on Mainstage at the Center for the Arts on Feb. 22. He’s well known as a jazz performer, singer and film and stage actor, yet few realize that Belafonte was a close, inner-circle confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A quiet leader in the struggle for racial equality for almost 40 years, Belafonte spoke extemporaneously for two hours.
"Few people really know who I am or where I came from; I am very private that way" Belafonte confessed to the intimate gathering of more than 800. "My life may have been driven by my experiences, but I don’t relive them.
"Racism has sucked up my entire life," he continued, "and race never, ever goes away. It is always there. So, I set out to be courageous. To me, that meant never accepting an indignity wherever I might find one."
A significant part of Belafonte’s life centered on his commitment to civil rights and his close friendship with Dr. King. As a youth, Belafonte had spoken out against racism and was "blacklisted" during the McCarthy era as a result.
King sought out Belafonte during a visit to New York in 1956. The two met privately in Adam Clayton Powell’s Harlem church, at King’s request. "He came to seek my counsel," explained Belafonte, "and I was deeply moved by his words. From that point on, we were inextricably bound. He brought me into his inner circle of advisors." Several benefit concerts over the years by Belafonte raised huge sums of money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
While King was deeply committed to civil rights, Belafonte says he did not covet the leadership role he later assumed in the movement. "He began seeking to cure an ill in his community, and it turned into a lifelong thrust." At the time of the Montgomery Bus Strike, the older, established ministers in that city "couldn’t stand each other," Belafonte explained, "so they gave the job to Martin, the new kid in town, because he was a college graduate."
And, it was King who urged Belafonte to meet with the Kennedys about the growing violence in the south.
"I denounced Bobby Kennedy, still angry over his affiliation with Joe McCarthy," said Belafonte of the former counsel to the Un-American Activities Committee. "But Martin said, ‘We have to win people over to our side. There is no victory in punishment.’" At his death, says Belafonte, Bobby Kennedy was completely supportive of the struggle. "He had truly turned 180 degrees. He could have been the next Lincoln."
It was from Belafonte’s lips, during a 1960 visit to his New York apartment, that then-presidential aspirant Sen. John F. Kennedy first heard the name Martin Luther King Jr. JFK was trying to secure Belafonte’s endorsement, to offset the recent defection of Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson to the Nixon camp. Belafonte remembered, "I told him he had come to the wrong place to play celebrity games, but that he should meet Dr. King." Belafonte became a trusted advisor to President Kennedy and one of the founders of the Peace Corps.
Belafonte also recalled two recent White House visits with President Clinton. "I told him he and John Kennedy were very much alike. Kennedy, too, was not very distinguished when he entered the presidency. But he had Martin, and you do not. He was forced to make history. Nothing historic is being pushed today.
"In Dr. King’s day," recalled Belafonte, "there were barely 300 black elected officials in this country, most at the lowest levels of government. Today, there are more than 8,000 African American elected officials. We have governors, mayors, congressmen. How could so many of us be sitting in the highest levels, yet we are still seen as so wretched a race?"
Belafonte does not suffer the entertainment chic well. "They want to celebrate their fame, not use it," he explains, saying that most of his life choices are deliberate. "I live in New York, not Hollywood. For vacation, I went to Africa, not the beach. I’m not a party regular because the Hollywood crowd believes I am an eternal malcontent."
Just a week shy of 68, Belafonte finds his career as a screen actor again flourishing. He has just completed a movie with John Travolta, "White Man’s Burden," in which the nation’s racial balance is reversed. "Blacks run the country and whites are the oppressed minority," he explained. Also coming soon are a film directed by Robert Altman, in which Belafonte stars with Kim Basinger, and another to be directed by Jonathan Demme (director of "Philadelphia") based on the book "Parting the Waters," which chronicled the civil rights movement during the King years.
Belafonte attributes his entry into performing almost entirely to luck, but his attachment to it was permanent and purposeful. He sang with many of the legends of jazz — Paul Robeson, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach — but it was not until his 1957 album of calypso music and West Indian cultural songs became the first solo album ever to sell more than a million copies that Belafonte realized "the power of art and communication. The gift of art, I learned, is the ability to influence people." He saw a powerful platform in music from which to impart his message of racial harmony. Paul Robeson, whom Belafonte calls his mentor, once told him, "Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are."
Belafonte, who had not made it past his first year of high school, lied about his age to enlist in the Navy during World War II. "I felt compelled by racial oppression to become part of stopping white supremacy." He recalled one charming incident while he was a sailor that changed his life forever.
Belafonte gravitated toward a group of well-educated members of his segregated unit.
"I would listen to them speak intelligently of our history and would occasionally beg some instruction, for it was very complex to me. One day, growing weary of me, they tossed me a book, The World and Africa by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois," Belafonte recalled.
"As DuBois was one of the greatest intellects of his time, he gave no special consideration in the writing of his books to dropouts. I struggled through it, and discovered the valuable sources cited at the bottom of each page. So, I made a list. And, on that list, one person showed up more often than any other."
Belafonte decided that, on his next shore leave, he would go to the library to check out the books by the writers he had listed from DuBois’ footnotes. Learning that the list presented more books than he was allowed to check out, he told the librarian to just get him the books by the man cited most often by DuBois: "His name was Ibid," Belafonte said.
The librarian tried, but failed, to convince Belafonte he was misinformed about an author named Ibid.
But after his shipmates heard that tale, Belafonte’s nickname became "Ibid" for the rest of his tour of duty.
N.B. To fully appreciate Belafonte is to go along with his musical joyride. Play this rendition of Matilda and join in the fun.