Harry Belafonte: Actor And Civil Rights Icon
(Soundbite of music)
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Nichelle Nichols was not the only performer in the civil rights era who saw his or her work in entertainment as a platform to advance the cause of racial justice and equality. But of all of these, the singer Harry Belafonte might be the best known as an activist as well as a performer.
Belafonte became not just an ally and an admirer of Dr. Kings but also a friend. Its a relationship he discussed with us on our Martin Luther King Day program in 2009, just one day before the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama.
We talked to Belafonte about how he first met Dr. King.
Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Activist, Singer and Author): A phone call. I was in my home, and I received a call from someone who identified themselves 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 liked 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 hed 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: 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.
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 archived audio)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr. (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 Vinoba Bhave. These are but a few examples of the way Gandhiji 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 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, for 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.
What I am somewhat disappointed in is that 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: Did you think that Dr. King ever envisioned 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 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 president or more.
MARTIN: Harry Belafonte, a social activist and 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. Belafonte, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your work.
Mr. BELAFONTE: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me to come on.
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