Actor, Author and Humanitarian Belafonte struggles with today’s Civil Rights problems

Says they mirror the 1960’s, anger missing as fuel for change 


By Chinta Strausberg


Actor, author and humanitarian Harry Belafonte revealed Friday that he is struggling with the status of the Civil Rights movement because the solutions of the old Civil Rights problems thought to have been solved decades ago are being revisited today and are haunting communities across this nation.

What is missing today, he said, is needed anger that once successfully fueled the Civil Rights problems of the 1960’s.

The multi-talented Belafonte made his remarks last Friday before a standing-room only crowd at Saint Sabina Church, 1210 W. 78th Place, where he praised Father Michael L. Pfleger and acknowledged the presence of a “fellow warrior,” the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

In introducing Belafonte for the Saint Sabina African American speaking series where WVON’s Cliff Kelley was the MC,  Pfleger said Belafonte’s album, “Calypso” resulted in his being “the first artist in industry’s history to sell over 1 million” records among a lengthy list of accomplishments including presidential appointments.

“Harry Belafonte is one of the few voices that has remained consistent and in pursuit for truth. He is unbought and he is unbossed. He has never compromised. He’s never compromised his heart to the poor and he has been unwavering in his demand for justice. The world should relish the presence of Harry Belafonte that he came our way,” said Pfleger as he introduced the popular singer, author, actor and humanitarian.

Referring to his return visit to Saint Sabina, Belafonte said, “I am overwhelmed by the power of this altar, this place of worship. There is much truth that presides here. It’s also an opportunity to search the heart and to search the mind in the quest for greater wisdom.”

Referring to the snowstorm and the freezing temperatures feared to deter people from coming to Friday’s event, Belafonte said he was “humbled” at the presence of a packed church “because the elements were not in our favor.”

“Never before in my life for wisdom so gnawed at me as it does now,” he said. “We’ve used up so much in our treasures of strategy in order to meet the onslaughts of oppression and now yet still now we’re here wondering where do we go next and what do we do?

“In the face of so much that has been sacrificed, where do we go now and what do we do and how do we do it? Whenever I am troubled or seek to find answers to questions…, I often listen to the voice of Dr. King. I’ve gathered all of his sermons, and I play them as a matter of my constant ritual of replenishment. Hearing his voice always gives me a sense of mission and purpose.

“And now I find myself at this time of my life with a lot of questions I thought we had answered,” said Belafonte. “The last time I saw Dr. King, he had come to our home in New York. It was not an uncommon thing for him to do because often he had occasion to talk about the strategies for the campaigns we were waging.

“We would sit and think and ponder what were the tools in our…opportunity to meet the enemy, to meet the problems to find solutions,” he said. “In the room of thinkers, much was revealed and unfolded that gave us guidance as to how what we were set upon to do.”

Belafonte said one night Dr. King was in New Jersey. He had gone there to meet with a group of young men and women “who were deeply angry, enraged and had threatened to set the torch to the city, and he had gone there to meet with them in order to try to negotiate some other views, some other ideas on what they could be doing that violence and trying to burn the city down was not the way to go,” he recalled.

 “Such an act would only wreak greater havoc and greater pain not only on our nation but on our movement. We would be diminished” if they used violence as a form of a solution.

Referring to Dr. King, Belafonte said King “left that meeting unrewarded. He felt he had not convinced the young people that there could be another way and this mood weighed heavily on him. During the course of the meeting, he was in a surly mood.”

At one point, Belafonte asked what was wrong. King told him about what happened in Newark and how the youth rejected his opinion. He expressed concern about that outcome. “

“He said we fought long and hard for the goals we’ve achieved so far. We will have our rights given to us. We will get the chance and an opportunity to attend the institutions we would like to attend to educate our young. We will change the face of segregation. We will win the struggle for integration, but there in lies my deepest concern.

“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 quoting his mentor. They were stunned over his “rather prophetic remark.” Belafonte recalled how they caught their breath after Dr. King made those visionary remarks.

Belafonte said though they fought “this great fight, this great struggle” of integration in “trying to change the way in which America conducted its affairs. We tried to change all that and we thought that integration would be the answer and now our leader was telling us do not be too hasty in seeking rewards because I’m afraid we’re integrating into a burning house.”

Belafonte told Dr. King, “If that be your view, Doctor, what would you have us to do”? Dr. King told Belafonte, “Well, we’re just going to have to become firemen.”

In retrospect, Belafonte said, “I never understood how prophetic that remark was until subsequent history revealed itself. As American crawled along to the gates of freedom, to the gates of recognition, to the gates of ending segregation, we still found that the enemy was mounting a mighty force to over run us once again and to take away from us those things that we had gained and to still keep us in the abyss of poverty, in the abyss of confusion. Where do we go now? What do we do now?

“So often young people that I see across the length and breadth of this country when you speak they want to know what do I do now”? Belafonte explains to them what happened between the times of the Civil Rights movement to the current times.

“Those of us who were caught up in the struggle of Civil Rights never lost a battle. Every goal that we set for ourselves, we achieved right from the moment of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott up until the moment of the Poor Peoples’ campaign everything that we’ve done inbetween, every battle we went into, we won,” he said.

But, Belafonte said there is one battle they have yet to win—the war he says still prevails. In talking about the move to the next social experience like getting the right to vote, Belafonte said, “if people who had never voted before have the right to vote, the question for them was how do we vote and who do we vote for?

“When you look around for the candidates who best make up the litany of choices we hoped we would have, every time the finger always pointed to those who were most chosen…or trusted of the men and women who made up the ranks of the Civil Rights movement.

“So, when it came time to take over the legislative reigns of opportunity to serve in our congresses and our state legislations and to begin to hammer out the new laws of the nation to accommodate the new moment among the people who have suffered so terribly. We found that we could only call upon our Civil Rights leaders. Those are the only ones people knew,” he said ticking off a list of Black Civil Rights activists.

Saying the Civil Rights movement serves these new levels of opportunity by getting these young men and women to service, Belafonte said when the Civil Rights leaders  “left to go give us that service a lot in the communities was abandoned.

“When the opportunities for economics opened up to us, a lot of he young people who were in our movement went off to serve in the economic halls of government and business. They went off to become CEO’s, became heads of Corporations, set out to create new businesses….”

“And for a long time our movement was distracted with filling these rooms of opportunity and in trying to fill these rooms of opportunity, we abandoned our communities. We abandoned our traditional thinking. We saw new opportunities. We saw new places of power and what we were unable to recognize was that in essence power corrupts… Not only does power corrupt but absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he said.

Belafonte added, “Not only was our movement abandoned, but these temples of power became the place where we most worshipped. We liked our new clothes. We liked our new material goods, and we seemed to be unable to have amassed more than we would ever need. We always want to get more and more.”

But Belafonte said given this scenario, “We found in many of these individuals, the community was served less and less but now today we find that while some in our communities fly fully and voguely with large fortunes, much of our community lie fallow. Many of our young people are looking for where to go and what to do.” Belafonte said this current state of affairs has him looking for answers.

“What do we say to them? What do we encourage them to do? I find that it is necessary for them to not only be led to understand that they have the capacity to change but they must use that capacity to change…they must use the great sense of sacrifice,” he stated.

To the former Civil Rights leaders, Belafonte said, “The one thing that was replete among those of us who were in the service of this life’s movement, was that each and every one of us was willing to sacrifice everything we had for the truth for the good of our cause, for justice and for our nation.”

Belafonte was stunned to learned that the U.S. had the largest prison population in the world including the largest number being those of people of color and so many who were young. “We are building more prison cells in America than we are building classrooms,” said Belafonte.

“Across the length and breadth of this nation, we’re shutting down our institutions of learning because we said we’re economically unable, that we do not have the resources that help nourish the education of our young people.

“Yet, somehow we were able to find the resources to fight and unjust and unholy war. Where did all of a sudden those resources come from and why were they so abundant while our schools were shutting down, while our children were being driven back into the streets and into places of evil. Why””

The nation’s fiscal picture grew bleak. That’s how Belafonte saw the economy of America when he said, “All of a sudden we woke up one day and the banks had run off with the treasury. Wealthy people had not only taken away the large resources that made up the opportunities for America to build and to nourish itself, but they did so and once again (were) rewarded with money they said we did not have.

“How could we find $770 billion to keep the rich happy and to continue to ground the poor down to the ground…to keep us in such places of misery,”? he asked.

“One ingredient that I found out in our quest to change is that I found out somewhere we lost our capacity to be angry. I looked at Katrina and when I saw what happened to us by acts of nature and by acts of economic absence of resources to strengthen to the levies and to do what had to be done for the people affected, when I looked at all that, I found that as people languished the rest of the nation was stunned at the way in which this evil was responded to.

“It was not met with a sense of urgency by the community. The community stood by and looked and its anger was not being expressed because somehow we’ve come to believe that anger is evil. Dr. King once said anger is a necessary component in the fuel of our struggle. If you are not angry, you are not motivated,” he stated.

“Evil does not resolve in anger. It resides in what you do with what you do with anger. Where do you place it? If you use your anger to destroy, then it is an evil thing that is happened, but if you use your anger to face down evil, then that is a different kind of motivation.”

Belafonte said when youth come to him and ask what do we do, he simply tells them: “Well, damn it. The first thing you have to do is to get mad. The first thing you have to do is to be angry. If you’re not angry enough…. You have to be willing to turn that angry into an energy that is called rebellion. You’ve got to be willing to rebel against the conditions as they exist.”

Referring to the early years around 1930 at the beginning of the labor movement, Belafonte remembered a conversation with a Polish worker who said, “Calculate carefully and ponder well and remember this when you do ‘my two hands are mine to sale. They made your machines and they can stop them, too.’ As long as the machine is able to continue to run while we wallow in misery, we will forever be wallowing in misery. We’ve got to stop the machine,” he stated.

“We’ve got to stop America in its quest for being so selfish so we continue to reap rewards at the expense of the poor and the only people who can stop them from doing that are the poor themselves,” Belafonte said. “It was our rage and our anger that mightily fueled what we did during the earliest days of the Civil Rights movement.

“ Our anger and our rage started before then. It’s always been in our midst. Africans have always had reasons to be angry. The poor have always had reasons to be angry and whenever we evoke that anger, whenever we organized and mobilized and impeded the machine, stopped the machine from moving forward, the machine had to change the way in which it did business.

“It had to yield against the powers of slavery and we resisted that and we won our mark. We went again back into another century of oppression, a century of segregation and when our anger got powerful enough and strong enough, we went back to the walls of Jericho, and in doing that, we changed the way in which America was doing business but now the enemy has regrouped itself and now has come back more powerful than ever because all of those institutions, all of those isms, that once the traditional enemies of capitalism have all capitulated because they have now taken up the calculus banner.

“Everybody in the world wants to be rich,” he said. “There is one truth in the philosophy of capitalism and the practice of capitalism, in order for it to fly, in order for it to be successful, it must find cheap markets. It must find the poor. It must find where they reside so they can be exploited so that the rich can be richer, and that is exactly what is happening now.

“America, which was on the threshold of a certain kind of prosperity began to watch that prosperity become diminished because the workers they say were earning too much. The workers were becoming too comfortable. They were the reasons that the profit machine was not making as much profit as the machine wanted to make so it went to where it could find poor people and farmed out all of this work to them.”

Looking at talk show where the hosts claim the Chinese took American jobs; Belafonte disputed that theory saying, “The Chinese didn’t take our jobs. We gave it to them. We took it to them. They were the next tier of exploitation. They were the poor.

“We took it to Indian…two billion people living most of them in poverty. That is where we had to go to find these new markets, and we have the audacity and the indecency to say even now that still American workers are making too much and must get rid of labor.”

Belafonte said times are interesting. “First they have to get rid of the Communists. A lot of us kind of understood us, but when you got rid of the Communists and there were no more Communists to get rid of, they said we got to get rid of the liberals. You have to get rid of the Democrats and once you have kind of retain them and re-directed them away from the mission of purpose and the mission of good, you then look for the next.”

Belafonte said the next target were the poor and the workers. “So now you got rid of Communism. You got rid of democracy. Now you got rid of liberals, and now you’re trying to get rid of the poor. What’s next”?

Saying if you follow history, Belafonte said there will be “huge areas of concentrations of prisoners and people who would be put into a totalitarian experience and it’s on the way….”

“If you have not studied the details of the law of Homeland Security, then you don’t understand what they’ve got in line for you,” he said. “Anyone of you can walk out this church…and someone or some group can take you and put you in a car and take you somewhere and nobody would ever hear from you again and nor is it incumbent upon those who would do such a thing to have to tell anybody where you went….”

“The Homeland Security law says any individual at their election can be arrested, do not have to be charged, do not have to be fingerprinted, do not have to be told what they did, do not have access to a lawyer, cannot call your family, can be put on a plane somewhere and whisked off to some far away place and tortured without ever having to account to anybody to what has been done. This is the law. This has been passed. It’s on the books. It’s being applied,” he said.

Belafonte said hundreds of people have been “whisked away” and their families don’t know where they are.

Referring to President Obama, Belafonte denied he has dishonorably criticizing the President, he said, “Somebody is trying to turn this into a personal affair. Nothing could be further form the truth. I like Barack Obama. I think he’s a nice young man. There is a lot about him that fills me with a sense of pride. He is president of the United States of America.

“We did something right in the Civil Rights movement to position the American people in a way that they could even think of electing a man of color, but with all of these truths and facts on the table does not exempt him from the moral responsibility that he has in the governance of this country,” he stated.

Jokingly, Belafonte said of Obama “I love the way he sings” and hopes when he serves his second term “I hope he doesn’t come for my job.”

But on the serious side, Belafonte referred to Dr. King saying “without an angry people, without the poor rising up with indignation against their condition, our leaders will never be pushed to do what they must do because there is no voice.

“What was achieved in the days of the Civil Rights movement was that we had an angry America,” said Belafonte mentioning the many campuses where students were angry about the Vietnam War. “We had black people who were angry about poverty…racism…and oppression…and this mighty anger found itself into a pool of power that drove our government to pay heed to what we were saying and do those things that relieve us of the burdens of anger.

“Had it not been for the peace movement, the Vietnam rebellion, John Kennedy would never have been required to take a good hard look at how he was escalating that war,” he said. “Had it not been for the anger in the streets of America from Black people and on the campuses of America, they would never have been forced to take a look at the laws and how to honor what the Constitution said it was about.

“And in that anger and in that moment, you found liberation, and we are now at that moment when the one ingredient that is absent in anything we do…. I don’t know how often Jesse Jackson has sat down and made great economic schemes and economic designs to force the bank to give fair employment, to bring black people into the employment fold and has won a lot of those victories and others who did everything within the conscripts of how we were told the game should be played.

“We’ve played inside your rules and in playing inside your rules, we found ourselves once again being devoid of our rights,” said Belafonte.

Turning to Rev. Jackson and to the audience, Belafonte said, “We’ve got to stop playing with their rules.  We’ve played with their rules long enough and as long as we continue to play with rules that says there must be cheap markets, we’re playing with the wrong rules.”

To the young people, Belafonte said he works with the 1199 Union (Service Employees Union International). “It started with workers who were chamber maids, people who were hospital workers….” He said 60-years ago, he saw in them “love and opportunity because in them I saw my mother, my father…others who were unskilled workers trying to organize to get a living wage.”

When he joined the union as a young artist, he said there were a few thousand compared to today’s membership of more than 400,000 and that is just in the East.  Nationally, he said there are more than 2.3 million members. With those numbers, he asked, “Why can’t we changed the way business is done. We’re trapped with rules that are unfair. We’re going to have to change the rules, change the way we do business.”

But, Belafonte said there is one thing that must be done and that is “to stop the machine. If you do not take care of business with the poor, then nobody should be making money,” he told a cheering audience. “Nobody should have the right to harvest so many on the backs of so many and in turn give the so many so little. That is not fair.”

He warned if the machine isn’t stopped “it’s ready for you. It will be cruel…oppressive.” He gave an example of that cruelty as the current crisis in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya, in Africa and other parts of he world.

“The poor are angry and they’re rising up and they are paying a price for it,” Belafonte said noting that more than 6,000 people are dead in Syria “because they want to be free. It’s a terrible price to have to pay for freedom, but it’s the price you have to pay. If you want freedom, you got to pay it….”

Belafonte said Dr. King used to have a tick, a nervous habit, a psychological habit. “It wasn’t constant. It came at odd times and odd moments and when it revealed itself” he would have to pause and catch his breath.

Belafonte said in 1968 he was on the Tonight Show and Dr. King had been invited. “He spoke fluently and with ease. He always did that, but in this instance I noticed the tick wasn’t active.” He asked King how did he feel and asked him what happened to the tick. King responded, “I wrestled with it and I did it.”

When Belafonte asked how did he get rid of the tick, King said, “Because I made my peace with death. He said I have no fear of it and that was in harmony with a number of things he said in that period. Whether he said it down in the church down in Memphis or he said it in the last moments of his life…’I don’t care about dying. Dying doesn’t mean anything to me….’ He said ‘I don’t care about death. I’ve overcome that…. It’s not about how long you live. I’d like to live forever and see the world grow and see my children blossom. It’s not how you live. It’s what you do with the life you got and how well you are using it.”

Belafonte said of the many things we should say to youth is “Are you prepared to put your life on the line? Are you prepared to perhaps one day being brutalized? If you get that out of the way, you’ll stop fearing what the enemy can do to you, you may be able to square it away, face it down, get on with it.”

Saying some critics say that fine with him because he’s 85, Belafonte said, “I wasn’t always 85…nor would I suggest that our struggle be one of mayhem and destruction. That’s not it. That’s not what it’s about.

“When I try to wrestle with it…what is it that has stopped black people in particular from rising up with great indignation and what is going on with our planet…what’s going on with our people and in our communities? One thing that is absence for me is rage and the anger among our people to be expressed in some meaningful way that those who oppress us will understand that we are in the business of liberation and we’ll except nothing less,” he said.

Belafonte said after the end of WWII in looking for ways to treat problems non-violence became key to him, his thinking and his way of life just like those in the movement “who shared that same principle…of non-violence and who were willing to sacrifice themselves fully in our mission and were prepared to pay with their life. That became the most important force in life.”

He said there were spiritual rewards and the glory of non-violence but also it was a strategy. He said back then non-violence was the best tool they had.

And, looking to the present with the Occupy Movement, Belafonte said of these youth he initially said, “My God. Why don’t they go take a bath? Why don’t they just go find a job and go get a meal somewhere and stop mucking up the traffic? Well, where have I heard that before?

“When we gathered in the early days of our rebellion,” he said critics would ask, “Why don’t you go smoke a joint somewhere and get lost? Why don’t you just get out of the way, but they read us inaccurately. In their attempt to try to diminish us and demean us, they tried to cover up the truth about what our mission was. Our mission was freedom. Our mission was honor among fellow beings, and we stayed the course.

“I think what we are facing now is an opportunity among young people who’re trying desperately to find their way. “  He said their leaders could be found in history and said their wants are the same menu as that of the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960’s. 

“These questions that are being asked by the pundits and by those who get the platform of public discourse are asking questions to blind us and to make us think that somehow we don’t know what our mission is. It’s simple. The mission is freedom. The mission is dignity. When our young people do come out of a university, there will be a place for them to find a decent job….”

Rev. Jackson closed out the historic forum saying before Belafonte met Dr. King; he worked with in Paul Robeson and Dr. DuBois. “I shall never forget how he used the stage more of an emancipator rather than an entertainer. To call him an entertainer is to cheapen Harry Belafonte’s life.

“I remember when he used to sing these songs of the Islands ‘The Banana Boat’ and ‘Day-O’ and all of that, how he extended our consciousness.”

Turning a page of his history, Jackson said, “My mother and father working as domestics cleaning the house and cutting grass, these two women who were very smart women, very nice. These two women carried pans on their heads and won’t drop them. They were very nice, very different people.”

Jackson said his parents brought them home to dinner. The women were Jamaican. Saying his world seems so small with Jamaica so far away, Jackson said, “We were just a boat apart.

“Mr. King leaned on him as mentor. Who got Dr. King out of jail in 1963? Harry Belafonte,” he answered rhetorically. “Harry got Dr. King out of Jail. Harry Belafonte raised money to get Dr. King out of jail.”

“When Dr. King could not meet payroll, Harry organized an 11-city tour for free. Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklin” participated in this fundraiser. Jackson said they were on the stage in Houston, Texas but said “they put tear gas in the fans and we were driven from the stage in Houston, Texas.

“If you show me Sidney Poitier, or Sammy Davis or Frank Sinatra…or Marlin Brando in our struggle, I’ll show you Harry Belafonte who sent for them. He was not just a star. He was an emancipator,” Jackson said.

“He’s been a global leader of great substance. He used the stage as emancipation. He never brought indignity to the stage. He always bought honor. Harry, we thank you so much tonight,” Jackson said as he led the church in prayer pausing to pay homage for Don Cornelius who was cremated last Thursday having committed suicide “and the elders of our struggle who paid the supreme price that we might have the right to be here tonight….”

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: