Living legend, Harry Belafonte, comes to the university for Black History Month Extravaganza
“Living legend” Harry Belafonte, renowned civil rights activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., hosted this year’s Center for Black Culture’s Black History Month Extravaganza Thursday night in the Trabant Multipurpose Room.
At 86, he can look back on a lifetime of achievements, not only in the crusade for equality but also in music and entertainment.
Belafonte, who engages in humanitarian projects today, was a devoted activist for the fight for civil rights as a young man. He was an instrumental player in the fight as he said he helped to garner funding, participated in freedom rides and marched with King throughout the movement.
“Once he stepped into my life, everything about me became something else,” Belafonte said about his friendship with King and the influence King had on him.
The two met for the first time in the basement of a church in New York, and a friendship developed rather quickly through their mutual passion and dedication to the civil rights cause, he said.
An audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was played prior to Belafonte’s stage entrance. Center for Black Culture Director Kasandra Moye briefed the audience on Belafonte’s early life before he began his speech.
Belafonte began by recreating the African American Civil Rights Movement by coloring a mental image for the audience from a detailed memory of the 1960s. He described a time when he feared for his life in the South with each passing day.
He said he was able to defy societal limitations stacked against him, despite being born in Harlem, N.Y. in 1927. If not for all the hardships in his early life, he would not have met all the great people that brought him to where he is today, he said.
Belafonte also described a specific instance when his activism could have cost him his life. On a journey to Greenwood, Miss. to deliver $70,000 to fund pro-civil rights projects with Sidney Poitier, he ran into the Ku Klux Klan. Poitier had warned him before the trip that they may not survive, but Belafonte said this was what he expected would happen. The money he raised would later be used to fund voter registration drives and freedom rides, Belafonte said.
Professor of Black American Studies Yasser Payne said he aspires to emulate Belafonte.
“Belafonte is a hero to many of us aspiring activists, not only to people in the black community but to folks around the world,” Payne said. “It is real with him. He is one of the last voices that speaks about hard issues, poverty and oppression that occurs domestically and internationally.”
Not only has Belafonte proven to be a successful activist over the years but he has also been equally influential in his work as a humanitarian.
Black American Studies professor Arica Coleman said Belafonte uses his position as a celebrity to draw attention to various social issues other celebrities would never address. In 1987, Belafonte was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador due to his never-ending fight and dedication to UNICEF’s cause.
He has helped create partnerships for children in need and has spoken up about the issues that impact their lives such as a dire need for adequate health care in Mozambique, Coleman said.
Coleman, in alignment with Belafonte’s speech theme, said there is a need for more humanitarian acts in our society. Belafonte said the fight to keep humanitarian programs like art, music and theater in our society’s institutions must not be ignored.
Belafonte said Black History Month is important to him because he thinks our country is severely undernourished when it comes to understanding our history and the people who contributed to it.
“Belafonte’s brand is seeing people as human, seeing them as equal and not just talking about the ideals of humanity and equality—but actually living it” said Coleman.
In order to move this nation forward, the idea of radical thought has to be employed, he said. Radical thought means thinking outside of the norm, which Belafonte encouraged people to embrace.
“Unbridled capital is the name of the game,” said Belafonte, and in our society today “we suck it up like a junkie looking for a fix.”
Payne said Belafonte’s revolutionary spirit has brought so many injustices to the forefront of American minds.
“I think that if we don’t understand how we evolved as a nation we will never really grasp the extent to which we have to address the possibilities that are at our disposal to heal and to fix,” Belafonte said.
The months of January and February bring numerous university speech requests to Belafonte as the nation celebrates black history. He views these as opportunities to serve public interest and he participates every year, he said.
“Civil rights doesn’t start and stop,” Belafonte said. “It is always in our midst.”