“We’ve come to a time when we’ve abandoned radical thought. Radical thought is essential [to bring about change].”
It’s amazing how the things I often prattle on about sound so much more sage, and eloquent, when voiced by an international legend—and human rights hero—like Harry Belafonte.
While at 85, the resonant tenor of the man who had the first million-selling album has been reduced to a rasp, as the Keynote Speaker at a Northwestern University program honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte still spoke volumes.
Of course, the singer, actor and activist—who I learned much more about last year through the Sing Your Song documentary, and subsequently saluted in this birthday blog post—had plenty of history to draw upon, as he became a close confidant of Dr. King when both men were in their mid-’20s. Belafonte recalled how MLK initially called him and said, “I cannot do it alone.”
And to a Pick-Staiger Hall audience comprised largely of NU students, though also the general public, Belafonte’s speech had an underlying theme of devoting oneself to helping others, particularly the disenfranchised.
Though no longer the spry performer who enjoyed groundbreaking success in music, theater, film and television—at the very least, check out his Wikipedia bio—Belafonte began his talk by displaying the warm-spirited personality that once made millions of worldwide fans wild about Harry.
Following an impressive performance by the Northwestern Small Jazz Ensemble, a remarkably buoyant rendition of “Amazing Grace” by the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and remarks from Charles Whitaker—an NU journalism professor who co-chaired the event—and Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Belafonte was welcomed to the stage by Victor Shao, president of Northwestern’s student government.
But as Belafonte got to the heart of his speech, relaying how he and King had worked together on the “Poor People’s Campaign” shortly before MLK’s 1968 assassination, and reflecting on how upon hearing JFK—who he also befriended and advised—urge “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he focused on what it meant specifically for black people, I doubt anyone was glancing at their wristwatch (including me, who always does).
In looking at the notes I took on Belafonte’s speech, which was followed by a brief on-stage interview by a journalism student, I am struck again at how masterfully he wove together themes of affliction, action and hope with equal depth and acuity.
He spoke of financial inequity, crippling levels of incarceration among African-Africans—“we build more cells than classrooms”—the loss of our “moral compass” under George W. Bush, improvements yet not widely realized remedies under President Obama and the terrible scourge of guns, for which he advocated “a radical movement to challenge the second amendment.”
Despite walking with a cane, Belafonte looked good and sounded sharp, but acknowledged his own mortality while expressing that gun control was “what I’m committing to in the last days of my life.”
Yet his endlessly impressive devotion to activism was nicely balanced by Belafonte referencing how his wife—who I believe is his third—and family were the most important part of his life, and that their support and understanding as he traveled the world and sometimes championed controversial causes largely enabled him to do all that he has.
Particularly moving, especially given the occasion, was when Belafonte shared being privy to Dr. King’s moments of doubt. ‘In the quest for integration, we are integrating into a burning house,’ Harry cited Martin telling him, to which Harry replied, ‘Then we’re going to have to become firemen.”
Without any boasting or braggadocio, Belafonte also looped in working on behalf of Native Americans and having been the motivator behind “We Are The World” and related African-relief efforts.
I apologize for reprising another of my common kvetches, but in watching Harry Belafonte speak I couldn’t help but again be chagrined over the relative superficiality and societal insignificance of so many of today’s so-called celebrities and—since they’re increasingly not one and the same—artists.
Much to my contentment and cognitive validation, Belafonte espoused how artists need to do more to stimulate the masses to address injustices, such as Wall Street fraud. And that everyone—especially those within institutions of higher learning—needs to share in a commitment to radical thought, the path to which, Belafonte voiced, “was the first thing the oligarchy sought to stamp out.”