Harry Belafonte sat down with Roland Martin for an exclusive interview. In this segment Mr. Belafonte discusses Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.
MR. MARTIN: You get a phone call one day, and you’re told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wants to talk with you. And you write that that literally – the beginning of that relationship literally changed your life. What was it about him that was so unique, that was so different, so transformative for you?
MR. BELAFONTE: His humility. I was stunned by it. I was sittin’ in a room with a kid 24 years old when I first met ’im.
MR. MARTIN: And in your book, there’s a picture, and you’re sittin’ there. You’re only a few years older, but he looks so young sitting at that table.
MR. BELAFONTE: Well, he was.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: He was 24. And incidentally, I was 26.
MR. MARTIN: Ri- — [chuckles] – right. [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: The old man of the crowd.
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: But here we were, sitting in this room, and as I – and as I sa- — and as he unfolded his mission to me, I could not only – I – I had to handle the fact that he came with an inordinate intelligence. And the way in which he phrased the things he had to say and his vision for them[?] constantly evoked in me a great sense of challenge and a great sense of – of need and desire.
MR. MARTIN: And y’all were sittin’ –
MR. BELAFONTE: That’s what –
MR. MARTIN: — there for three or four hours.
MR. BELAFONTE: — that’s right. And that’s where I wanted to be.
MR. BELAFONTE: So, in that context, I saw in him the model. I was wide open to violence. I’d come from it. I’d live in it all my life and [was] quite prepared to apply it at any given moment if my turf was invaded. 00:12:58
MR. MARTIN: And you had a lot of that anger boarded up inside of you.
MR. BELAFONTE: Yeah. The anger’s still there, incidentally, because at Dr. King’s instruction, he thought anger was a very, very important tool. He said, “We first need to be angry at” –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: — “our plight before we’ll act upon changing” –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: — “our condition.” So, anger is a necessary force. It’s not so much that you’re angry; it’s what you do with your anger that finally determines the importance of anger.
MR. BELAFONTE: And what I saw in him was a chance to use nonviolence as a weapon to change the conditions in which we lived. And as much as I would have liked to, in the beginning, pooh-pooh that idea –
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: — my first attraction to him was – I said, “You[?] know[?], tactically speaking, that’s not bad.” Tactically speaking, you are somewhat disarmed if, when I give you love, you give me a slap in the face. Something is wrong with that equation
the onus is on us who are being attacked and those who are doing the attacking [sic] to change what they do. 00:14:18
MR. MARTIN: I’ve long said –
MR. BELAFONTE: Sorry.
MR. MARTIN: — that one of the most underappreciated aspects of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement is that people don’t appreciate the strategizing, that it wasn’t just, “Let’s go out and take a march.” Y- — y- — in – in your book, you really get into the strategy of “What’s next?” and how long it’ll take and “What’s the next step?” and “Who do we call?” and “Who do we work with here and here to make these things a reality?”
MR. BELAFONTE: I think anybody who has the rebel spirit sees the mission in that context. Every time we won a campaign – and, incidentally, I have to tell you – and I will be challenged by anybody who would like to challenge me – we never, ever lost a battle. I went back and took a look at the whole journey of the Civil Rights Movement. We didn’t win the war; we’re still in the war, but we never lost a battle on the way. So, anybody who says, “Well, that was back then, and that was when,” I tell you that it’s still applicable today. When I look at – when I look at –
MR. MARTIN: Egypt and Tunisia –
MR. BELAFONTE: — Egypt, Tunisia – pla- — yeah, and look at, you know, Occupy Wall Street.
MR. MARTIN: Yeah.
MR. BELAFONTE: That’s still us.
MR. MARTIN: Well –
MR. BELAFONTE: — That’s –
MR. MARTIN: — I – I see – to me, that’s the Poor People’s Campaign.
MR. BELAFONTE: That is the Poor People’s Campaign. No question about it.
MR. BELAFONTE: And the fact that they have chosen to use nonviolence as the tactic by which to confront the oppressor is, to me, one of the most clever – one of the most – one of the cleverest of applications they could have picked – nonviolence. And in this context, I think, what Dr. King gave us in this – in this tool was something that I grew to believe in. I began to study nonviolence and its deeper tenets, and I think it’s the best – the best we could have. 00:16:09
MR. MARTIN: You talked earlier about young people. A lotta people, they talk about the NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC, and so many of these groups. And I think because they no longer exist, people really don’t understand SNCC. They don’t understand the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
You saw these young people really as that driving force of the Movement. Is part of the problem today there was not that mechanism that stayed in place for – that was driven and directed by young people to pass on from one be- — one generation to the next?
MR. BELAFONTE: I have a conversation in the film with Mandela when I say to him, “Somewhere along the line, we who were engaged in the struggle dropped the baton. We did not pass it on to the next generation.” And I was eager to hear his response and somewhat touched by the fact that he saw that aspect of our struggle in the same context.
He said, “Yes, we failed. We did not do what we should do[?].”
But then when I went back and took a look at the charts of life, if you have never had the right to vote and did not even understand the – the – the – the – the process of voting, if all of a sudden you wake up one r- — day, and all of a sudden you can go into a voting booth and cast your – your vote for somebody, the first question you have as a Black person coming to the – to – to that booth is, “Who do I vote for, and why?”
MR. BELAFONTE: And when you’re looking for who to vote for, you don’t[?] – you have to have somebody who counsels you, or you have a – a relationship to the – the community in which you live that tells you who’s the most anointed. And I think every time Black people went to vote – and a lotta poor people went to vote – for the first time, what they found was that the people they could most trust were the people who were from the Civil Rights Movement. So, along came Andy Young, who was required to get into the electoral process. Along came Julian Bond, who was required to get into the electoral process. Along came John Lewis, who was required t- — so, all these civil rights leaders that came from these communities flocked to fill the next space that we had opened up for ourselves. We had to have young, bright men and women sitting in places that could run the legislative branch of government; that could sit and write laws and become engaged. And once we got them into that position, we no longer had those people in the community servicing the growth and the – and the – the counseling of young Turks –
MR. MARTIN: So – so –
MR. BELAFONTE: — comin’ up.
MR. MARTIN: — so, the grassroots infrastructure became the political infrastructure –
MR. BELAFONTE: Exactly.
MR. MARTIN: — and there no longer was a grassroots infrastructure there to support what they’d already done.
MR. BELAFONTE: Exactly. We’re just now getting back to that, and I think we’re getting back to that in a very healthy way by what you see going on with Occupy Wall Street and going on in Oakland. 00:19:18
00:05:03 MR. MARTIN: It was very interesting to read – you talk about the toll your work, in terms of singing and acting, but also your commitment to causes, had on your marriages and your family. I’m reading a book on Ella Baker and how she essentially – when she got divorced, she – she married the Movement. E- — explain for folks – and you talked about – in the book – Dr. King as well. Explain for folks really what – the price families have to pay for freedom fighters to do what they do.
MR. BELAFONTE: I am constantly, constantly confronted with that thought, and it’s in my own cultural and my own historic DNA. There’s no way to serve the cause of the – my son says it very succinctly in the film. He said, “We had a problem.” He said, “We had the family of man, and Dad had his own family. And he was running between the two like a lunatic.” That’s exactly what he s- — I had to laugh,
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: — I had this vision from his perspective as a kid.
But I don’t think it’s possible to do what we do without some sacrifice to the needs of family and to our children growing up. I think there’re things I could’ve done a little differently and maybe took a little edge off some of the things that I didn’t do; but by and large, there is a price to pay.
MR. BELAFONTE: Nowhere for me is this price more fully illustrated than what happened with Dr. King and his family. I think his children paid a terrible price for what happened to –both to Martin and to Coretta and the constant fear and the constant absence that was evident in their lives. I think that, had we done things a little differently, and could we have done things differently, the families might have fared better.