Harry Belafonte on 'Bobby' and Politics
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Look through archival footage and photos of the Civil Rights Movement, you'll often see the face of musician, actor and activist, Harry Belafonte. He's one of America's best-known black celebrities and his panache and tireless involvement added considerable weight to the cause.
Today at 79, Belafonte is still a political firebrand. He's got plenty to say about the Bush Administration. And yes, he continues to act. In the new movie "Bobby," Belafonte plays one of 22 characters at Los Angeles' famed Ambassador Hotel on the day that Bobby Kennedy was killed.
This week, I caught up with Belafonte to talk politics, including his interactions with Bobby Kennedy, whom Belafonte got to know personally, on the orders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Musician, Actor): Well, when we first got word that of Bobby Kennedy had been appointed as attorney general for the United States of America, many of us saw that as an unfortunately dark choice. Bobby Kennedy did not come with a reputation that made us feel confident. He was very much a part of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They interrogated hundreds of remarkable American men and women - many of them who did not deserve to be, were demonized. And their lives were crushed, and careers were broken, and people became even suicidal. So it was not a very pleasant time.
And when he became attorney general, with his record of anti-liberalism, with his class interests and his class distinction, and coming from Massachusetts and having had no real history or background with peoples of color. It was a difficult moment for us.
Dr. King, upon listening to all of us on how we criticized Bobby, said in his concluding remarks, go out and find his moral center and will him to our cause. And I think that that rather daunting suggestion, challenged us, and we went out and did exactly that. We reached out to him and we brought him into our world, and we gave him opportunity to look at what was happening to the poor white children who were dying of malnutrition, and white miners - who were quite poor - dying of black lung disease. Through these environments and having to encounter these experiences had a huge impact on Bobby.
And then coming into the black community, into the sharecropping sectors of Alabama and Mississippi. And I think by the time the end of his life came, everybody agreed that Bobby Kennedy was perhaps the second largest force in the midst of our struggle. The first being Dr. King himself. And then when Bobby decided to run for the presidency - having served some time as a senator, after having served as the attorney general - he came to the table with a lot of background, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of service. And we saw in him an opportunity to bring a leadership quality to America that had not experienced, certainly not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and certainly not since Abraham Lincoln.
CHIDEYA: You know - well, you know better than anyone - that you have not held your tongue over the past six-plus years about the Bush Administration, about geopolitics. You've gone to visit President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. What motivates you to not only believe what you do, but to say it completely freely? Even when some of your fans, some people in politics, may say oh, Harry Belafonte, he's gone too far. I'm thinking, particularly, of the incident where you compared General Colin Powell to a slave who just wants to say what the master wants to hear?
Mr. BELAFONTE: Yes. I made all those remarks and I stand by them. I tell you, I do not apply my life, nor do I engage myself in the things that I do - based upon its popularity. I am not governed by popular consensus. As a matter of fact, Dr. King on many occasions rejected that resoundly. He said if I must deal with consensus, then let me be a consensus-maker. And I think that those of us who understand that liberation from oppression can only be effectively applied based upon radical thought, and if one does not think radically in the face of oppression, one accommodates oppression.
I feel that going outside the box, as I commonly refer to it, is where we're going to find solution. In the box lives the status quo. And we must work against the status quo.
CHIDEYA: Where do you draw the line in terms of how you phrase what you say? I'm thinking here of Hugo Chavez. You went in with Danny Glover in a delegation to meet with him very early this year. And then in September, he called President Bush the devil, which even, some supporters said ah, you know what? That's crossing the line. Where do you say okay, this is enough?
Mr. BELAFONTE: Well, I tell you, I would have suggested to President Chavez that he find language that would be considered a bit more statesman-like. Because one of the things we want to see in any leader who aspires to lead and lead morally, must understand that the voice of a statesman is what's needed in order to assuage animus, to help people overcome anger and rage, and try to find commonality of purpose. So, to the extent that he's, from time to time, applied language that seemed to be in the extreme - I would have counseled him otherwise. But having said that, if I were Hugo Chavez - knowing that several attempts have been made on my life to assassinate me and that such an idea has been openly advocated and declared by religious leaders in America, by people in our government, wherein our government has been actively involved in a coup d'etat - the military overthrow of an established democratic nation - and that said government was overthrown at the behest of the United States and with our complicity, with our culpability, under our advice and consent - I think I would have reasons to be a little ticked off. So I don't think Mr. Chavez comes without reason for disliking with great intensity, President George W. Bush.
But what did Mr. Chavez do? He's the leader of a sovereign nation. It is a nation that's ruled by constitution and by law. He's nationalized nothing. He's invaded nowhere. He has not suspended the opposition party. It's still very much alive. All the people who owned TV stations, even newspapers, are people who still do so. There is a voice of dissent in the country, which is exercised vigorously.
What is America's fear of Hugo Chavez? Other than the fact that he may be disseminating ideas which we find rather threatening to our system. And our system is far from healthy. America has much to do with the darkness of its own existence. And until somebody tells me what Mr. Chavez has done to deserve such animus and such alienation, I will continue to deal with him and continue to exchange ideas with leaders like him and anywhere else in the world I can find voices of reason that might bring some new ideas to the table in how we get out of a mess in which all nations in the globe find themselves.
CHIDEYA: Well, for the record I think we should say that there's definitely been open debate about even assassination attempts on President Chavez. But I'm sure that if we had a statement from the government they would deny any involvement in any coup.
So in a way, this brings me back finally to the movie, where one of the final lines that comes out of the film really deals with Bobby Kennedy talking about violence and the ways that violence breeds violence. I mean, it seems an eternal message, and one that is as applicable today as it was in the past. What do you think ordinary citizens need to do in order to engage with issues that sometimes seem out of our purview, beyond our control, out of our scope? What lessons might you offer from your life?
Mr. BELAFONTE: I think it's absolutely ludicrous and somewhat disingenuous for Americans to suggest that they have no blueprint on how to be decent, on how to move along with political will and courage to do the right thing. Our history has been replete with such men and women who've taken over leadership and have done some remarkable things for America.
I think that we have a lot of ideas and thoughts that Americans can draw upon. The teachings of Dr. King clearly charter a political course and reveal ideas that could make a huge difference in the way in which this country conducts its business.
Certainly what Bobby Kennedy said, his whole platform, his whole idea of how America could govern itself and what it could bring to the world, was very, very meticulously defined and declared. We need but go back to those principles. We can push the Barack Obamas all that we want. I know those - such young men may cut by style, a very handsome and attractive ways. It really is the content of their behavior and what they say that ultimately makes the difference. And while Mr. Barack Obama is in the midst of making such choice, I would hope that he would wind up looking deeply into the legacy that Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King and others - Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Eleanor Roosevelt - great people have left us. And let that be the blueprint for how they would administer their responsibilities.
But we have a lot of choice in this country and I think it is shameful that we do not make those choices. And every citizen, incidentally, I hold responsible and I charge with the responsibility of what happens to America. If we fail or succeed as a nation, it'll be because that was the will of the people. And we are responsible for how we conduct our lives and our choices.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Harry Belafonte, thank you so much.
Mr. BELAFONTE: You're welcome.
CHIDEYA: You can hear more of my interview with Harry Belafonte, including the story of his last conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Just go to our Web site at NPR.org.
The movie Bobby opens on Friday in Los Angeles and New York and on Thanksgiving Day in theatres around the country.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BELAFONTE: (singing) When I was a little baby, my mamma would rock me in the cradle, in them there...
CHIDEYA: East meets West. British Prime Minister Tony Blair says it's time to work with Iran and Syria. And two big named candidates begin their bids for the candidacy. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, next.
(Soundbite of music) CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.
Mr. BELAFONTE:(singing) ...ol' cotton fields at home.