Campus Celebrates Legacy of MLK
Harry Belafonte delivers inspiring talk, emphasizes importance of radicalism
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Harry Belafonte, the “King of Calypso,” told a capacity crowd at Northwestern University that he is counting on the next generation to carry on the obligation to think radically and to commit their lives to the cause of social justice.
The legendary actor, singer, civil rights activist and humanitarian, who made the songs “Jamaica Farewell” and “Banana Boat (Day-O)” hits on the Billboard charts, delivered the keynote address commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall Monday night (Jan. 28).
Nearly 1,000 Northwestern faculty, staff, students and others gathered to hear Belafonte speak, and he received a standing ovation. Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl gave welcoming remarks, and the evening was highlighted by moving songs, hymns and musical selections by the Jazz Small Ensemble, Alice Millar Chapel Choir and the Northwestern Community Ensemble.
Attired in a charcoal gray suit, the 85-year-old world-renowned celebrity, a friend who worked alongside King in the struggle for civil rights, spoke with passion, authority and eloquence -- and without notes -- on the importance of activism and the crisis of apathy.
“If asked to pick one thing that I thought would best sum up what this crisis is about, I would have to say the edge of this crisis is the fact that we have come to a time where we have abandoned radical thought,” Belafonte said.
“Without radical thought, America cannot move forward,” he said. “Without radical thought, democracy doesn’t really work. Our democracy, the way it is shaped, requires constant vision and caring. And radical thought is central to that fact.”
The Jan. 28 Evanston campus evening program – “The Dream: The Life. The Lessons. The Legacy.”-- concluded Northwestern’s two-week celebration that included discussions, lectures, film screenings, music, theater and service projects to inspire reflection on King’s life and legacy.
With an occasional sparkle of humor and the wisdom of experience, Belafonte spoke of his personal relationship with King, who worked with him regularly when they met at Belafonte’s home. He underscored the difficulties King faced in waging the battle for integration, equality and social justice in the decades after World War II -- a time when African-Americans returned home from fighting for their country to a land still segregated and bitterly divided.
Belafonte began his half-hour-long remarks by talking about President John F. Kennedy, with whom he worked on many occasions, quoting Kennedy’s much repeated lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Belafonte said the famous call to action was important to the American dialogue, but he wondered what it meant specifically for black people, especially given their experience with slavery and “in light of all that we have done for our country.”
Belafonte met a young King in New York in the 1950s. They developed a long friendship that transformed Belafonte’s life. He spoke from memory about the different phases of King’s struggle in the time during and after defeating segregation.
“When he said let us come together in a new day, because we have successfully engaged the country in our right to vote and right to equal opportunity and our quest to end segregation and unjust laws, he came to what he considered to be the most critical crossroads of all,” Belafonte observed. “And that was economic equality. He was now touching the nerve center of America.”
That led to the poor people’s march on Washington, D.C., he added, noting, “Our mission was to go to Washington and have a mighty crowd show up and to stay relentlessly in the paths of our legislative leaders and let them know that we no longer accept this economic and social inequality.”
After initiating the campaign, Belafonte said, “My friend had been murdered just after he talked about changing America’s landscape.”
The last time Belafonte saw King at his home, he said the civil rights leader seemed “terribly distracted and depressed.” After accomplishing so much, he was weary, Belafonte said, because full integration seemed such an impossible goal.
“He said we have fought long and hard for integration,” Belafonte recalled. “Almost every campaign we’ve set for ourselves we have won. But I’m afraid we’ve come to a place now where I am looking at this issue of integration, and I am having other thoughts…I really think we are integrating into a burning house.”
Belafonte asked the dispirited leader what should be done, and he said King replied, “We will just have to become firemen.”
In his wide-ranging remarks, Belafonte also:
- Declared a “call to action” from young members in the audience, pointing to one young man seated in front of him and quipping, “Hey, kid, now it’s your turn,” then turning around to make certain the members of the Northwestern student choral group seated behind him on the stage also heard the same message.
- Noted that 20 minutes was a short time to deliver the kind of speech and thoughts he thinks are very necessary in America, especially to the students who fill our campuses and universities. So he spoke for just over 30 minutes and then answered questions.
- Encouraged President Barack Obama to do more to call on the country as a whole to become better engaged, emphasizing the importance of individuals committing themselves to not just making change but pushing for “drastic change.”
- Reflected on President Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that whenever citizens see their state failing to adequately defend the Constitution and democracy against tyranny, that is the time “for people to speak out” and, if they don’t, they leave themselves open to being accused of “patriotic treason.” And he noted that he has dedicated himself each day to never “join the ranks” of people who could be accused of patriotic treason.
In fact, he noted that as he reaches his final years, he is committing himself to the cause of fighting gun violence, which he believes so disproportionately impacts and victimizes the African-American community. He called on Americans in general -- and black Americans in particular -- to no longer be silent but to raise their voice in that cause.
Audience members included the general public from the Chicago and North Shore areas and a group of senior citizens from the Foster Senior Group in Evanston. In addition, there were more than 60 fourth and fifth graders, the principal, five teachers and six parents from the Newport Elementary School of Wadsworth, Ill.
“Mr. Belafonte’s quote about ‘radical thought’ resonated with me,” said Newport Elementary School Principal John Coburn, who had arranged the school trip to Northwestern and has attended with his school group the annual MLK commemoration for the past five years. “You have to be willing to think out of the box and not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. Most importantly, you have to be willing to help others that are in need, who may not have a voice in society.”
Coburn emphasized the value of the commemoration of King’s legacy, noting, “It's important for the students and faculty to hear this message, because the past must be passed down to the young people and it must be studied in our schools.
“I wanted students to understand the struggles of society from the past to the present and the sacrifices it took to get them to where they are today. Students must understand that education is a must and not something to take lightly. I wanted both the students and teachers to hear someone that actually spoke and had a friendship with Dr. King and to hear that there are struggles and obstacles that they are going to have to overcome.”
The keynote program included a performance of Wallace Wills’ “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the traditional song “Live A Humble,” performed by the Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble, directed by Bienen School faculty member Victor Goines, director of jazz studies. Also performed was Goines’ jazz arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” a traditional American song, featuring vocal soloist Kathryn Wills and the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and Jazz Small Ensemble and conducted by Stephen Alltop, director of music for Alice Millar Chapel.
It included a welcome by Charles Whitaker, assistant professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and co-chair of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration 2013 with University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens.
Audience members joined in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” led by Alltop. Belafonte was introduced to the audience by Victor Shao, president of Associated Student Government (ASG) at Northwestern University. Following his keynote address, Belafonte sat down in the middle of the stage for a Q-and-A. interview by Northwestern student Will Robinson-Smith, a senior at Medill.
The program concluded with Charles Jenkins’ “Grace and Mercy,” a musical selection performed by the Northwestern Community Ensemble, that was followed by a benediction by Chaplain Stevens, and a postlude of the South African Xhosa traditional folk song “Lilizela” and the traditional “Wade in the Water” performed by the Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble.
Born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in 1927, Belafonte is the son of Caribbean-born immigrants. He returned with his mother to her native Jamaica as a young boy. Following the outbreak of World War II, he and his mother returned to the United States, a transition Belafonte, a teenager at the time, found difficult. Unable to finish high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for almost two years as a munitions loader. After his tour of duty ended, he was honorably discharged and returned to New York City where he worked in both the garment district and as a janitor’s assistant. He went on to pursue a career as an actor. His lead role in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones,” took top critical honors, attracted Oscar nominations and made Belafonte a star. His recording “Belafonte” reached number one on the Billboard charts and started a national craze for calypso music in the mid 1950s. Belafonte’s RCA album, “Calypso,” made him the first artist in industry history to sell more than one million LPs. Belafonte also went on to become television’s first black producer, winning an Emmy for his CBS production of “An Evening with Belafonte,” directed by Norman Jewison.
Belafonte’s many firsts in the overturning of numerous racial barriers in the world of culture in America is legend. Belafonte met a young Martin Luther King Jr. on his historic visit to New York in the 1950s. From that day until the leader’s assassination, Belafonte and King developed a deep friendship that for Belafonte still stands as one of the most precious of his experiences. Disturbed by cruel events unfolding in Africa due to war, drought and famine, Belafonte set in motion the wheels that led to “We Are the World.” He contacted manager Ken Kragen, and they, along with others, guided and directed the project known as USA for Africa (United Support for Artists for Africa), the name under which 47 predominantly U.S. artists, led by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, recorded the hit single “We Are the World” in 1985.
Belafonte was also prominent in the contribution to the ending of the oppressive apartheid government of South Africa and for the release of his friend Nelson Mandela after more than 27 years of incarceration. President John F. Kennedy appointed Belafonte to be the cultural advisor for the Peace Corps, a position he held for five years. In 1987, Belafonte was appointed as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has continued to devote himself globally to civil and human rights issues, focusing in particular on the United States and Africa. Belafonte’s memoir, “My Song,” was released last October, in conjunction with an HBO bio-documentary titled “Sing Your Song.” A free screening of Belafonte’s film was shown Jan. 26 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.
For more on the documentary, visit http://singyoursongthemovie.com/the-film/.
For more information on these Evanston and Chicago campus events honoring King, visit http://www.northwestern.edu/mlk/.