Harry Belafonte has championed civil rights for nearly 50 years

By Murphy Browne Wednesday February 27 2013 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)


This is my island in the sun


Where my people have toiled since time begun


I may sail on many a sea


Her shores will always be home to me


Oh, island in the sun


Willed to me by my father’s hand


All my days I will sing in praise


Of your forest, waters, your shining sand


As morning breaks the heaven on high


I lift my heavy load to the sky


Sun comes down with a burning glow


Mingles my sweat with the earth below


I see woman on bended knee


Cutting cane for her family


I see man at the waterside


Casting nets at the surging tide


I pray the day will never come


When I can’t awake to the sound of drum


Never let me miss carnival


With calypso songs philosophical


From “Island in the Sun”, composed by Harry Belafonte and Irving Louis “Lord Burgess” Burgie in 1957.


Harry Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927 as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. at Lying-in Hospital, Harlem, New York, to Harold Bellanfanti and Melvine Love Bellanfanti, both immigrants from Jamaica.


Belafonte, who is recognized internationally as an entertainer best known for his popular song “Day-O” (Banana Boat Song), is also a human rights activist. His start as a human rights activist began during the African-American civil rights struggle in the 1960s.


Belafonte’s autobiographical memoir, My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance, begins with him recounting his experience of the summer of 1964:


“It was the night of August 4, 1964. A night of grief and anger for all of us in the civil rights movement, but especially those in Mississippi. The bodies of three volunteers, missing since June 21, had been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Chaney, the Black volunteer, had been tortured and mutilated.”


He continues with his story of that night when he was called by James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), asking for support of the student volunteers of what became known as Freedom Summer of 1964. The group needed $50,000 to continue the vital work they had undertaken.


Although three of their members had been brutalized and killed, this brave group of mostly young people were determined to continue the struggle. Belafonte rose to the challenge of raising $50,000 in less than three days by contacting his many friends and acquaintances and raised $70,000 within the allotted time, including $20,000 from supporters in Montreal.


Then, as he tells the tale, the situation became really dangerous (given the vicious White supremacists who would lynch any African-American with no compunction) when it was time to get the money to the group in Mississippi. As he explains in his book:


“I couldn’t just wire it and have a Black civil rights activist go to the local Western Union office to ask for his $50,000, please. He’d be dead before he drove a mile away. As for banks, those fine institutions owned and operated by Mississippi’s White power elite? No way.”


Belafonte delivered the cash himself, accompanied by his friend and fellow entertainer, Sidney Poitier, in a nightmarish episode where they were pursued and almost lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan.


In My Song: A Memoir, Belafonte explains why he became involved in the civil rights struggle:


“Any Black American with a pulse and a conscience had done that by the summer of 1964, at least to the extent of writing the occasional check. We couldn’t tolerate more lynching and beatings. We couldn’t let Black Americans be treated as slaves in all but name anymore.”


He is open and honest about his life, beginning with the poverty he experienced growing up in Harlem and in Kingston, Jamaica and his anger at his parents for what he seems to consider their abandonment of him and his younger brother, Dennis.


Belafonte’s mother, struggling to make a living as a domestic in New York, took him and his younger brother (nine and five years old at the time) to Jamaica in 1936. In Jamaica, he lived with relatives and attended several schools in Kingston, including Mico, Wolmer’s Boys’ School and Half Way Tree until his mother returned in the winter of 1940 to take him and his brother back to New York. He writes of the anger from that experience, which was a part of his early life and followed him into his adulthood:


“My mother had a lot to do with it. To a lesser degree my father, but he was in there. I also knew that from my childhood, I’d occupied a lonely place, not just between West Indian culture and American culture, but between Black and White.”


It seems that the only time he was happy in his early years was when he lived with his maternal grandmother in Aboukir, St. Ann’s Parish, Jamaica, for brief periods between the time he was 18 months old and seven years old. Belafonte credits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with helping him manage his anger:


“Long after I’d immersed myself in the civil rights movement, I would still be trying to understand that anger and make it melt away. With Martin Luther King Jr. to guide me, I would embrace nonviolence – not just as an organizing tactic but as a way of life.”


In this very candid memoir, Belafonte writes of the reason for the discrepancy between his birth name and the name he has had for most of his life:


“Neither of my parents would be legal until they divorced and married U.S. citizens – in my mother’s case, not until I was seventeen. More than once, when my mother feared the jig might be up, she changed her name and bought forged papers. Bellanfanti became Belanfonte, and then after another variation or two, Belafonte.”


Since that early life of poverty and uncertainty, Belafonte has experienced fame and fortune to an extent he could not have imagined as a small child or even as a struggling young entertainer. However, as his memoir informs, he has been a tireless activist, speaking out even when he invoked the wrath of powerful people.


Apart from the civil rights struggle, he has been involved in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, hunger in East Africa and the end to the war in Iraq. In October 2002, he referred to African-American members of the Bush administration, General Colin Powell and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as “house slaves” and despite media pressure refused to apologize for his remarks, saying to Powell and Rice:


“In fact and in practice you are serving those who continue to design our oppression. That is villainy, and I insist you look at it.”


Speaking about the plight of African-American youth and the community’s concern at an event to honour Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the predominantly African-American St. Sabina Catholic Church in January 2003, Belafonte said:


“While we are wondering what to do about (Black youth), Bush and others have found out what to do. We have the largest prison population on earth. We are building more prisons than schools.”


During the same speech he spoke about the Bush government’s foreign policies:


“We are so overwhelmed with our imperial sense of power that we run around the world calling for wars when we want, overthrowing governments when we want, but there’s a price to pay for this.”


While visiting Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, in January 2006, Belafonte reportedly said in a radio and television broadcast:


“No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution.”


On March 1, Belafonte will be 86 years old and he continues to speak out on subjects that many consider controversial. On Friday, February 15, when he received the Spingarn Medal (the highest honour from the NAACP), he said in his thank you speech:


“The group that is most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African-Americans. Although making comparisons can be dangerous, there are times when they must be noted. America has the largest prison population in the world, and the over two million men, women and children who make up the incarcerated; the overwhelming majority of them are Black. African-Americans are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice. And in the gun game, they are the most hunted. The rivers of blood that wash the streets of our nation flow mostly from the bodies of our Black children. America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such quest. The most powerful force is the voice of African-Americans, and America will never become whole, and America will never become what it dreams to be, until we are truly free and truly a bigger part of this.”




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