Voice of Change
Singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, Jr., exhorts students to extend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy
By Tom Weaver Article published January 23, 2008
While launching into a story of his recent social justice work, Harry Belafonte, Jr., halted mid-sentence and shifted to an anecdote about a visit he made to a record store in the Caribbean. Incognito, wearing a wig on his bald dome, Belafonte browsed the bins in search of local music only to find mostly American artists. With a sly smile, he told the capacity audience in Ira Allen Chapel on Tuesday afternoon that he then decided to “look for one name in particular. But I didn’t see it. Maybe it was sold out?”
He asked the woman at the counter. “Do you have any Harry Belafonte?”
“No,” Belafonte said, mimicking the woman’s Jamaican accent. “A lot of people come in this island off the boat, and they come in here lookin’ for that man. And I got to tell you somethin’. I think he long time dead.”
After the laughter quieted, Belafonte said, “You’re not going to hear much about what I do, because the media in America doesn’t go where I go.”
Belafonte’s talk, the keynote event of this week’s UVM celebration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took the audience many of those places and into the ardent heart and provocative mind of the 81-year-old artist and activist, a man who is clearly very much alive.
A close associate of Martin Luther King’s through the nation-changing events of the American civil rights movement, Belafonte shared the one question he is invariably asked: “What would Dr. King say if he were here today?”
With his eyes alight, his humor quick, and his passion palpable, Belafonte took his audience in search of the answer in a wide-ranging talk touching on America’s prison population, Iraq and Colin Powell’s role in that “war of no righteousness, illegal, fraught with dishonor.”
Belafonte once figured at this time of life he’d be on a Caribbean beach, rum and book in hand. But he is “not doing those fanciful things,” in part because of the galvanizing moment in 2005 when he stumbled upon a television news report showing Ja’eisha Scott, a five-year-old black girl in St. Petersburg, Fla., being subdued and handcuffed by three white policemen. Her offense: being “unruly in school.”
Because the school lacked the resources for counseling or to take other measures, they simply called the police. Belafonte was shocked that he heard no voices raised in protest. He wondered, “Where are the leaders to shape the society and make a different world?”
He gathered longtime friends, advocates for civil rights and social justice, for what Belafonte dubbed a “Gathering of the Elders.” But it fell short. “At the end of the day, I didn’t hear any sense of clarity,” Belafonte said. “Everybody was somehow stuttering and trapped in their own place — busy with their own traditional patterns of engagement, patterns that had long since frustrated the appetite for success.”
What would Dr. King say? He would look to the young, Belafonte suggested, and reminded his listeners of the remarkable youth of the leaders at the outset of the civil rights movement. King was 24; Belafonte, 26; Julian Bond, 17; Diane Nash, “17-and-a-half years old with child”; and John Lewis (UVM’s 2007 Commencement speaker) a budding seminarian who “practiced his preaching to the chickens in the backyard.”
“These were the young people who sat on the buses and decided to step into the fray,” Belafonte said.
A half-century later, Belafonte remains unafraid of the fray and committed to the power of youth. “I had to look to the young,” he said. “I had to go to the places where all this mischief was taking place and see what they had to say.”
Deeply troubled by American society’s violent spiral, Belafonte sat down with members of the Crips and Bloods gangs seeking common ground. Early on, Belafonte said they were skeptical. “Mr. B., what’s the agenda here?” they asked. Belafonte told them the agenda was their own and set out a challenge. “Be responsible. Find the high ground. Seize the solution. There will not be change when people are concerned only with the I of the world, not the we of the world.”
That discussion would eventually broaden to include the Hispanic Gladiators gang, white teenagers in impoverished Appalachian communities, Native American and Asian youth. (For more on this work, see The Gathering For Justice.)
'It's not about color'
Speaking to students on college campuses is another central way that Belafonte looks to capture the imagination and energy of youth. “Coming to Vermont is a chance to reap a harvest of young people,” Belafonte said. “What is being taught here? What will these students be when they leave? Will they be great bankers, bookkeepers, scientists? What will their humanity reveal? What will be their social sensibility?”
Such minds are needed to rejuvenate and continue the work of Dr. King, work that Belafonte feels has languished, given over to complacency. “The enemy never sleeps,” Belafonte said. “We left the back door open and here they come again.”
Following his talk, Belafonte fielded questions from UVM students Channel Hamilton, DaVaughn Vincent-Bryan and Amanda Wong. The heated race for the presidential nomination was much on the students’ minds and Vincent-Bryan posed the question “Is America ready for a black president?”
After a long pause and a wide grin, Belafonte shouted, “No!” Then he added, “Should it? Could it? It shouldn’t even be a question. It’s not about color. It’s about the human heart and mind.”
The university's King celebration continues this week with several more events. On Thursday, Jan. 24, community members are invited to sign up for community service from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Living & Learning Fireplace Lounge, the Davis Center atrium, Waterman (near College St. entrance), and the Rowell/Given common entrance at the College of Medicine. Also slated for Jan. 24 is a social justice and equity fair that begins at 11 a.m. in the Living & Learning Fireplace Lounge. Antropologist Jonathan Marks will discuss "Is Race Real: Fact or Illusion?" at 6 p.m. at Carpenter Auditorium, Given. Information: UVM King Celebration.