Belafonte honors MLK’s legacy with keynote address

The civil rights icon recounts his life and the ‘eloquence of King’ to audience at RISD event

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Harry Belafonte — ‘the King of Calypso’ — was greeted with a standing ovation upon taking the stage last night to deliver the Rhode Island School of Design’s annual the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. keynote address, part of a larger celebration of Dr. King’s work. The crowd’s enthusiasm for the 85-year-old Belafonte — singer, actor, humanitarian and civil rights activist — never let up as he spoke about the contemporary need for radical thought and nonviolent social change.

Belafonte became the first black producer in television history in 1960, the first black man to win an Emmy in 1959 and the first recording artist of any race to sell a million copies of an LP album in 1956.

“Belafonte represents the beauty he’s brought to our world through music, but also the justice and peace he’s brought to the world thanks to his advocacy,” said Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., at the event.

While Belafonte briefly mentioned his significant artistic career — which, he joked, caused his mother to go “into a decline from which she never recovered” — the bulk of his talk focused on social activism today and during the Civil Rights movement. Artists “are the gatekeepers of truth,” he said, adding that “art is a great social tool, a great weapon.”

Belafonte recounted his youth in Harlem, N.Y. and his experience in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When Belafonte returned from the war, he said, he and his fellow black veterans did not receive the gratitude they expected.

“We’d stopped Hitler,” Belafonte said. “We’d stopped the sense that there was a racial superiority, yet there was no place at the table of victory for us when we came back.”

Belafonte said that in reaction to the racial inequality still rife in America, he and his young black contemporaries were at the time “quite prepared to go into violence” and to do “what was necessary to avenge and extract from the society what we felt we were entitled to.”

But King’s “radical thought” of using nonviolence instead of physical force to address racial inequality disrupted Belafonte’s burgeoning militancy.

“He introduced the concept of nonviolence, which many of us viewed as a fool’s pursuit,” Belafonte said.

Belafonte said he was “not only caught up with the eloquence of King, but his sense of mission and purpose.” After meeting in a church basement with a host of twenty-something civil rights leaders, King, then 24, and Belafonte, then 26, “met, and got on with it,” Belafonte said.

“What struck me was the way in which King applied himself to radical thought and encouraged us to think outside the box,” Belafonte said. King told them to “find a way to become more radical,” he said. Belafonte described radical thought as something that should not be viewed as violent or threatening, but rather a necessary tool with which to “change the landscape.”

“I don’t find radical thought abounding in the campuses of America,” Belafonte said. “There are individuals who would like to think radically, but it’s not part of the greater exchange we had on campuses during the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.

He said the civil rights movement left current generations “ample instructions” for radical activism, but noted that each generation has to forge its own way.

Belafonte also urged everyone to ignore “hedonist” impulses and pay attention to the needs of people on all rungs of the economic ladder.

“Too many people have no sense of priority … (and) no sense of what’s happening to fellow beings,” Belafonte said. “Everything’s a statistic.”

Belafonte related a conversation in which King said he was worried the black community was “integrating into a burning house.” This sentiment was “not the most inspiring thought for the rest of us,” Belafonte said, especially at a time when many civil rights leaders were preparing to launch into one of the most integral phases of the movement. “When I asked him what he would have us do, he said we were just going to have to become firemen,” Belafonte said.

After reflecting on the past, Belafonte concluded his address with an examination of the present.

“What I find most upsetting in the American discourse is the rejection of radical thought,” Belafonte said. “Our political leaders do not speak with radical purpose,” he added. “They speak within the same dull space that they inherited from past oppressors.”

Critical of the Bush administration, a lack of gun restrictions and mass incarceration of black youth, Belafonte also lauded President Obama for “stepping into the space of politics and bringing America a promise that was filled with radical thought and radical possibilities.”

“We have found someone who could have been the best of all of our choices to be the leader of the fire brigade,” Belafonte said.

Belafonte praised Obama’s support for minority causes and healthcare reform.

When students asked him how to pursue the creation of social change, Belafonte said it was all about how much they were willing to sacrifice — a spirit and legacy left by King. “Look at Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Occupy Wall Street,” he said. “Take a look at this ebb and tide of young people who are probing the system.”

Though Belafonte maintained that nonviolence still offers the most opportunities, he stressed that activists must still be “radical” in their actions.

“What are you prepared to sacrifice to see it done?” he challenged the audience. “Tell me of the generosity of your soul, and I’ll tell you how far I think we can go.”

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  1. I don’t care if he is “Belafonte”…. Don’t trust anyone who can confuse the teachings of MLK with the self-absorbed and terrorists of today. Belafonte is a complete idiot to make a statement like: “Look at Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Occupy Wall Street,” he said. “Take a look at this ebb and tide of young people who are probing the system.”

    This is what you get when you take life advice from the “King of Calypso”. Get real. Harry’s a dancer and singer. He’s not Aristotle.

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