King Honored As History Is Rewritten

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Today, millions pause to honor the life of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coincidentally, the national holiday falls on the eve of the inauguration of the country's first black president, prompting many to reflect on the civil rights struggle and look to a new chapter. Legendary performer and activist Harry Belafonte, a friend of the late Dr. King, discusses the dual significance.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Throughout the program today, reflections on the past and the future. A man whose father was born into slavery talks about what tomorrow's historic inauguration means to him. We find out the critical role enslaved Americans played in building our nation's Capitol - the Capitol building, that is. And we have our own inaugural poem. That's all coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, we speak with a man whose life, work and career span the historic change we're about to witness: activist, singer, author Harry Belafonte, one of the most popular entertainers of all time. The man known as the King of Calypso was an important financial supporter and frontline participant in America's civil rights movement.

Belafonte counted the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a perrsonal friend. And since Dr. King is being remembered on the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, we thought it was a good time to call him and ask him for his thoughts. And he's in the Washington, D.C. area. Welcome, sir. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Activist, Singer and Author): Well, thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How did you meet Dr. King?

Mr. BELAFONTE: A phone call. I was in my home, and I received a call from someone who identified himself as Martin Luther King, Jr. And he said, you may not have heard of me but I need to talk to you. And from that simple beginning, we embarked on a life of friendship that was very near and dear to me.

MARTIN: Was it his personal qualities, do you think, that first drew you to him or was it his mission and that the personal side came later?

Mr. BELAFONTE: I think his mission, first of all, alerted me to the fact that he was in our midst, and then I had occasion to - from this phone call - meet him some days later in the basement of a church in New York City, the Abyssinian Baptist Church. And in that basement, we were supposed to have met for what was agreed upon for 20 minutes, and at the end of a little over four hours, I emerged from that meeting knowing that I would be committed to the cause that he had put before me and that I would do whatever I could to enhance the struggle that was emerging.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes it is the case that people who are very important to a mission are not always the greatest or the nicest people to be around themselves, but you had a very close, warm, personal relationship with him. What is that that you liked about him as a human being?

Mr. BELAFONTE: I like his vulnerability. It is one thing for us to see Dr. King from the perspective of his enormous strength and the kind of decisions that he made and the things that he said and his fearlessness in the face of the journey. But to know him intimately was to understand how he plagued over the decision-making process, how he was deeply concerned that everything he said and everything that he do would have ramifications that he hoped would be the right thing in the final analysis.

He was a man who was deeply rooted in moral concerns, and he knew that every time he spoke and talked about mobilizing a movement or a demonstration, that that could perhaps end in taking a life of one of the people who would be a member of the protest or even a severe injury, which was not uncommon. And then to watch him plague over the responsibility of leading people into those kind of responses was something that endeared me to him because I saw him struggle with his humanity.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of that, we just found some tape of a speech that Dr. King gave in India in March of 1959, almost 50 years ago. And I'd like - with your permission, I'd like to play just a short clip of that speech.

Mr. BELAFONTE: Please do.

MARTIN: Here it is.

(Soundbite of Dr. Martin Luther King speech, India, March 1959)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr. (Reverand; Civil Rights Leader): First, we think that the spirit of Gandhi is much stronger today than some people believe. That is not only the direct and indirect influence of his comrades and associates but also the organized efforts that are being made to preserve the Mahatma's letters and other writings, the pictures, the monuments, the work of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and the movement led by the sainted Benovah Barve(ph). These are but a few examples of the way Gandhi G will be permanently enshrined in the hearts of the people of India.

MARTIN: You know, I was struck by this because in a way - he would have no way of knowing this, of course - but he could have been speaking of himself because we are also engaged in this question of how is Dr. King to be remembered? How is his work to be carried on? Do you have thoughts about that? Do you like the way we think about him now or is there anything about it that troubles you?

Mr. BELAFONTE: There's much about what Dr. King did and how it has been translated into this post-period of his life that I think leaves a great deal to be desired. However, having said that, one must face the reality that the power of his mission was so indelible and so overwhelming that it's not going to be easy for the world to lose him in the affairs of history. I think he will always be in the forefront of people's thoughts, of people looking for choice, of people looking for another way in which to do things. I think as long as there are wars, there'll be voices reaching out for the teachings of Dr. King. As long as there's poverty and discrimination and hate, I think Dr. King will have a resonance in our daily lives.

But I am somewhat disappointed in the public institutions - the schools, the churches, the political platforms of our nation and our world has not really done enough to disseminate his teachings to teach the young about who he was and more about the mission. As a consequence, I think a lot of our citizens are oblivious of what our struggle was about, and that I think is unfortunate. It's something that can be repaired. The question is, who has the will and who will do it?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Harry Belafonte about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life, of course, we observe today on this national holiday.

You know, there was this - there was this dust-up - I don't know if you want to call it that - over - you had at some point wanted to auction some of the letters that you had in your possession in order to use those proceeds to support your further philanthropic work, and there was a lot of sensitivity around that. What do you attribute that to? Is it - was that just a personal thing or do you feel that there's some larger issue around how his works, his - everything he touched is to be handled right now?

Mr. BELAFONTE: Well, great men and great women, courageous men and women spawned children into our world, and I think we're all joyous that there is that DNA, that there is that inheritance in our midst. And once that happens, there are expectations that children will follow in the legacy of what they've inherited. Certainly, that was expected of the King children in relationship to both what Martin and Coretta King had aspired to and achieved. There is a dysfuntionality that anyone knows about that exists among members of the King children's family. And I think that's unfortunate very much - very unfortunate. I think a lot of that is what is at display. I would just as soon not get into...

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. BELAFONTE: The details and the intimacy of that.

MARTIN: That's fine because there are other things we wanted to discuss, but I appreciate that. Just a couple of things I wanted ask you. Did you think that Dr. King ever envisioned what we are about to witness tomorrow - a black president in our lifetime, your lifetime?

Mr. BELAFONTE: I think that was very clearly a part his vision that one day - he said it in his speech - that we'll be judged for the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. And I think that Dr. King meant that that thought to be applied everywhere, not the least of which would have been in the White House and one of the - and one president or more in the White House. I think he envisioned this, but most of us had never thought that we'd have lived long enough to see that unfold.

MARTIN: And you've been a thorn in the side of many a presidential administration. You've been a tough critic of this current president. I think many people remember that you called General Colin Powell a House slave back in October 2002. What do you think your role is now as a lifelong social activist, a social critic, a man who has tasked himself with speaking truth to power - what do you think your role is in relation to this administration, this upcoming administration?

Mr. BELAFONTE: I've done nothing special for this or any other administration. My role in life, and the one that I've chosen to protect and to care for tenaciously, is to be a truth teller. It is to look at human misery, human suffering and human aspiration and to make sure that those who control the instruments that navigate us through our daily lives do so with moral persuasion, do that with moral thought and to be ethical in how they use the power that has been given them.

And when that does not exist, then I think citizens have the right and the responsibility to speak out clearly and precisely, to be able to stay and hold these leaders accountable. That's what we did, and that's what we should continue to do. Many have capitulated that responsibility, and there are many of us who do not understand capitulation.

MARTIN: Harry Belanfonte, a social activist and an entertainer and author. He was kind enough to join us from Potomac, Maryland, where he is staying while participating in festivities around Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration. Mr. Belanfonte, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your work.

Mr. BELANFONTE: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me to come on.

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