Roland Martin talks with Harry Belafonte about the civil rights movement and the leaders of the movement that went on to profit from it.
MR. MARTIN: One of the points that you – you made in the book when you talked about that period in the ’70s – really, the late ’60s, when SNCC began to become extremely radical: “Black power,” want Whites out, forget what the Civil Rights Movement was about, you asked the question in your book, “Where is that next generation of leaders?” – the folks who followed in the footsteps of Dr. King, Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer. And you made the point that they’re more concerned about getting their own financial fruits, as opposed to having that consciousness of the previous generation.
MR. BELAFONTE: The present generation and a generation or two even before them – they[?] are hugely preoccupied with reaping the harvest of the struggle that those of us were engaged in and trying to change the – change the game. And in a way, we’re responsible because we wanted our kids to go to school. We wanted ’em to get degrees. We wanted [them] to get into the mainstream of – [crosstalk]- —
MR. MARTIN: And not to have to face adversity.
MR. BELAFONTE: — that’s right. And not to have to face diversity [sic]. And – and a lot of them took us at the – too- — took the call, because a lot of young did not want to face diversity [sic]. They went off and became – did things that were very self-serving, about[?] getting rich; having a position that gave them material power, material acquisition[s]; and that became the game.
MR. BELAFONTE: And when I looked around at those of us who had been in the struggle, I noticed that, in many instances, a lot of the very people who were at the apex of the revolution, of the struggle, soon became the very things they set out to defeat. I know a lotta leaders in the Civil Rights Movement who became very powerful businessmen, who became very rich. A lot of the children of those men became people who just got to Wall Street and got to business, and it’s all they did. They said, “We don’t need to do that. You-all did that. It’s another day.”
MR. BELAFONTE: Well, the truth of the matter is that you do need to do that, and it’s not “another day” – because as long as there’s poverty, there’s gonna be struggle. And as long as struggle exists, somebody has to be there to help with that struggle overcome [sic] – the – the – the tenets[?] of – of – of poverty. 00:30:40
MR. ROLAND MARTIN: In your book, you also offered some advice to artists, and you talked about their responsibility and how they have the voice, the platform to address these social-cultural issues. Assess this generation of artists – Black or White. And are they as involved as you would want them to be on some of the critical issues facing this country and this world?
MR. BELAFONTE: From my perspective, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that the cultural community, the arts community, is anywhere near the – the – a commitment to doing things about changing the pain that exists at a lotta different levels, socially. My mentor Paul Robeson once said to me that it was a great adventure that I and others were embarking on. ‘S when I was quite young. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier all listening to our mentor speak when he came to see a play that we were doing. And he said, “You know, artists are the gatekeepers of the truth” – or, “the gatekeepers of truth, and it is through you that people are going to be instructed about not only where they came from, but where we should be going.”
And I think if you look at great art, if you look at art that is in the service of social need, you’ll find that the greatness of literature, the greatness of fine – the fine arts – painting, all those things – came from men and women of consciousness, who tried to better the plight of human beings. 00:02:53
MR. BELAFONTE: In that context, I’ve often looked upon the power that we have and what comes out of celebrity. When I first went to Japan to sing, and I found myself before 50,000 Japanese trying to sing the “Banana Boat Song” –
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: — I really – [chuckles] – I really understood power. I said, “My God. Here I am in a strange place with a bunch of people that I didn’t know anything about, except adversarily – ’cause of the war – and I said here they were, singing my song.
MR. MARTIN: Um-hum.
MR. BELAFONTE: And what do you do with this platform besides harvest money? How do you use this platform to impart a sense of our common humanity?
And I think art that does that has been art that serves us well. And in my generation, we had a large number of people who stepped to the plate, whether it was Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, or was Richie Havens, or whe- — or it was Josh White, or it was Leadbelly – I mean a litany of people. Sidney Poitier, all the actors of the period that did what they did – it was always about moving the human family ahead.
MR. BELAFONTE: And I think that artists have that power, and they have the obligation to sending [sic] out information and to giving ideas and thoughts to people that will help enrich them and get them out of the guogmire [sic – phonetic] in which we find ourselves. 00:04:24
MR. MARTIN: If we draw a line – we could draw a line from Robeson to Belafonte, who do you connect or ha- — hand the baton to? Wh- — who can we draw that line with, present day? Who is following in your tradition, who is following in Robeson’s tradition?
MR. BELAFONTE: I think there’re a number of artists – not just in America, but in other places in the world; I’ve seen a lot of artists out of Africa that I admire greatly, ’cause they get that message. They are creatures of social thought. I find a – I find a lotta people who nobody’s heard of that I find singing in the rap culture, and I find the rap culture the most problematic for me; because I think there was a form, a cultural dynamic that took place that was rooted in social protest, that was rooted in the message. And the minute somebody came along with a jingle, and they saw that they could wrap gold around their necks and that the culture could go someplace else, we lost our – we lost our path. 00:05:26
MR. MARTIN: So – so, you saw tha- — that – that period where rap music was sort of like folk music, the music that you really got yourself wrapped into –
MR. BELAFONTE: Rap –
MR. MARTIN: — the songs of –
MR. BELAFONTE: — music –
MR. MARTIN: — the –
MR. BELAFONTE: — is folk music.
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: Because like my friend Brownie McGhee would say, “It has to be folk music, ’cause I never heard a horse sing.”
MR. MARTIN: [Chuckles.]
MR. BELAFONTE: [Chuckles.] Folks sing. Folks –
MR. MARTIN: Right.
MR. BELAFONTE: — tell the s- — and what I found with the young guys up in the Bronx – Melle Mel, Afrikaa Bambaataa, et al., were – were – were – were – were guys that came in – in protest. And instead of takin’ a – a .44 and blowin’ your brains out and shootin’ one another, they decided to get together and challenge – [unintelligible] – through a cultural dynamic. That was a very healthy – healthy step for young people to take.
MR. BELAFONTE: But the – but the merchants saw an opportunity to exploit this for gain, prof- — for – for profit and corrupted the process.