January 25, 2012 —When Harry Belafonte, already a famous entertainer, first met members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, he had to convince them, he said, that he really was there to serve their cause – the Civil Rights Movement – and not get attention for himself.
Belafonte spoke Tuesday night before a packed house at the Paramount Theater with fellow civil rights activist Julian Bond, a history professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, for the keynote event in U.Va.'s two-week commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
With Bond asking questions, Belafonte spoke about his work in the Civil Rights Movement and international human rights, what he thought "went wrong" in the subsequent 50 years despite the movement's many successes, and the need to improve the education system to reach more minority youth.
A screening of the just-released documentary about Belafonte's life and civil rights activism, "Sing Your Song," preceded and gave context to their conversation. Afterward, he signed copies of his newly released autobiography, "My Song."
Belafonte, 82, was born in Harlem and grew up there and in Jamaica, where his parents were born. The film details his rise from poverty to wealth and fame as a singer and actor and follows his participation in the Civil Rights Movement and later humanitarian efforts in Africa.
He broke racial barriers with his successes – he was the first African-American to win an Emmy in 1960 for his solo TV special – but still he faced discrimination in the South. When he traveled with all-white crews of fellow entertainers, he wasn't allowed into the same hotels and restaurants, even though he was the main attraction. In the film, he mentions how humiliating that was.
Belafonte's activism was kindled earlier, he said, in the beginning of his career on stage. He credited the singer and activist Paul Robeson with being his greatest role model, strongly influencing his political beliefs and his commitment to fight for justice.
King reached out to the entertainer for support, and Belafonte became a member of his inner circle. Belafonte said his main functions were fundraising and attending civil rights events – often bringing a cadre of well-known entertainers with him – to bring more attention to the cause.
The evolution of his activism paralleled the growth of his career, Belafonte said. When he met Bond, along with other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, he said, "It was a pivotal moment for me, meeting the SNCC members." He said he was impressed with their remarkable courage and threw himself into the movement.
"If not for SNCC, I don't think the movement would've gone so far," he said.
If not for King, it wouldn't have had the clarity of purpose and vision that united people, he said.
When Bond asked what qualities of King's impressed him, Belafonte said it was the leader's humility and belief in people's goodness, even his enemies. King urged his supporters to find the place of goodness in those individuals to try to win them to the cause, he said.
Belafonte spoke of Robert Kennedy in particular. When Kennedy became U.S. attorney general, civil rights leaders were uneasy, he said, because he had not shown any interest in what they were fighting for. King said they should look for his moral center to convince him – and convince him they did, by sending Kennedy and the Department of Justice irrefutable evidence of injustices against black Americans, for example.
Nevertheless, King didn't seem optimistic in his last days, according to Belafonte. The last time the two men talked, King was in "a dark place," he said.
"I'm afraid we are integrating into a burning house," King told him. When Belafonte asked him, "What would you have us do then?" King only replied, "Become firemen."
Belafonte said civil rights leaders were unprepared for what would come after they accomplished their objectives.
"People had nothing, and now they were given a feast. It was hard to know what the diet should be," he said.
He expressed dismay that many of today's entertainers feel no need to help and to give back to their communities. Robeson taught him the responsibility of artists is to be "the gatekeepers of truth," he said.
Too many people have capitulated to greed at the expense of being morally responsible, he said.
"Some things in life can't be equated that way," he said, to applause.
In 1985, Belafonte helped organize the Grammy Award-winning song "We Are the World," a multi-artist effort to raise funds for African famine relief. He has also organized conferences for young people to instill in them dedication to helping others and fighting injustice, as he has done throughout his life.
When one audience member asked how he continued his public service, especially confronting famine in Ethiopia as shown in the documentary, he paraphrased Robeson:
"I do what I can do with the little I have – the important thing is, I do it."
– by Anne Bromley