It was both a walk down memory lane and a call to action when singer, actor, civil rights activist and international humanitarian Harry Belafonte spoke at St. Sabina Church.
Part of a Black History Month program that also brought Princeton Professor Cornel West to the South Side church on Sunday, Belafonte, espousing incendiary views on racism and capitalism for six decades, did not hold back during his presentation Friday night.
Criticism of President Barack Obama’s bailout of Wall Street banks, comparison of the Occupy America movement to the 1960s civil rights battle, and an urging of African Americans and the poor toward an uprising to alleviate racism and poverty were among topics covered by an 84-year-old luminary who has sat with many of the world’s heads of state.
“I find myself at this time of my life with a lot of questions I thought we had answered,” said Belafonte, who was born in Harlem, N.Y. in 1927, was the first African-American man ever to win an Emmy Award and was a key confidant to Martin Luther King Jr.
“The last time I saw Dr. King, he had come to our home in New York, which was not uncommon as we plotted strategies for campaigns we were waging, and he was in a surly mood,” Belafonte told some 1,000 who braved a snowstorm to hear him.
“King said, ‘We have fought long and hard for the goals we’ve achieved, but therein lies my deepest concern, that in this struggle for integration, which we are achieving, I do genuinely believe that we will be integrating into a burning house,’’ Belafonte said.
“I never understood how prophetic that was until subsequent history revealed itself.”
Deeply entrenched in the civil rights movement, Belafonte was a friend who would bail King out of jail, and who, with such notables as Julian Bond, John Lewis and Dick Gregory, founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
So many of the gains of that movement have been lost, he charged, ticking off decimated and disinvested inner-city communities devoid of a middle class; continuing disparities yielding low funding of public education and high incarceration rates of minority youth; and high poverty and unemployment rates that still more greatly afflict minorities.
“But for all the battles that we’ve won, we have yet not won the war,” Belafonte said.
In 1960, he was named cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, and in 1987, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He has earned worldwide recognition for his dedicated work on behalf of African children stricken by poverty and HIV/AIDS, as well as his outspoken advocacy for the poor and oppressed across the globe.
“And when I’m accused of dishonorably criticizing our president, somebody has tried to turn this into a personal affair,” Belafonte said of his more recent criticisms of Obama’s economic policies. “I like Barack Obama. I think he’s a nice young man. There’s a lot about him that fills me with a sense of pride. His presence as president of the United States of America means that we did something right in the civil rights movement.
“But all of these truths do not exempt him from the moral responsibility that he has in his governance of this country. What Dr. King taught us was that without an angry people, without the poor rising up in indignation against their conditions, our leaders will never be pushed to do what they must do.”
A World War II U.S. Navy veteran, Belafonte found work as a local club singer to pay for acting classes in the late 1940s but instead found music his calling. His breakthrough 1956 album, “Calypso,” was the first LP ever in history to sell more than 1 million copies. A prolific actor as well as singer by the late 1950s, he won the Emmy for his 1959 TV special, “Tonight with Harry Belafonte.” He was the organizer of the multi-artist recording, “We Are the World,” which won the 1985 Grammy Award for record of the year and raised millions for emergency famine and health aid to Africa, and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1994.
“When I look at young people in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and hear, ‘Why don’t they go get a job?’ I think, where have I heard that before? When we gathered in the early days of our own rebellion, they said, ‘Why don’t you all go smoke a joint somewhere and get lost?’ ” Belafonte said. “What we’re facing now is an opportunity among young people trying desperately to find their way. The pundits say, ‘Where are their leaders?’ Their leaders are found in history. ‘What do they want?’ Take a look at what we wanted, and you’ll find it’s the same menu. What’s missing is that rage.”
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