Harry Belafonte: An international treasure
By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. NNPA Columnist
The long protracted struggle of African Americans for freedom, justice and equality is recognized as a vital and important part of the global struggle for human dignity and freedom. There are no freedom movements without the contributions, sacrifices and commitments of freedom fighters. Too often we take for granted the enormous price that has been paid by those people, well-known and unknown, who have given so much to the international cause of freedom. One such freedom-fighting leader is Harry Belafonte.
For more than seven decades, Harry Belafonte continues to stand tall among social visionaries and activist-leaders who champion the cause of equality and liberation throughout the world. In the immediate aftermath of the loss of Maya Angelo and Ruby Dee, we all should take a moment to salute this international leader in our midst while he is still alive. Over the years, Belafonte has been a strong advocate and supporter of the Black Press of America, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when Black newspapers across the United States covered Belafonte’s involvement and support of the Civil Rights Movement.
On the evening of the historic 1963 March on Washington, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, and Sidney Poitier joined in an unprecedented television interview panel with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando. They all discussed the issue of race in America and the challenges that remained in the wake of the success of the March on Washington. But it was Belafonte who asserted that Black Americans were “not going to wait any longer for change to come.”
I remember when Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, publisher of the Sun-Reporter in San Francisco, encouraged me during the height of the struggle to free the Wilmington Ten in the 1970s to reach out to Belafonte because of his effective international progressive influence. Harry Belafonte is more than just a great entertainer. He remains a magnificent role model for artists, actors, film makers, and entrepreneurs who want to contribute to making the world a better place.
In the 1980s, Belafonte became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador with a special focus on the plight of all children. Belafonte stated, “To really know what progress we’re making for children, we have to know how many children we have to begin with. The simple act of counting is an expression of a country’s intent to take care of its people.”
Belafonte was the lead organizer for the Grammy award winning record We Are the World that won record of the year in 1985 and raised millions of dollars for emergency assistance in Africa. The United Nations affirmed that “Belafonte was an eloquent campaigner for the world’s children.” In 1987, the UN appointed Belafonte to be the Chairman of the International Symposium of Activists and Intellectuals for African Children.
President Bill Clinton awarded the National Medal of the Arts to Harry Belafonte in 1994 for his outstanding leadership and service to humanity. A couple of years ago, I had the rare pleasure of sharing a train ride from Washington, D.C. to New York City next to Belafonte. We talked the entire trip on topics ranging from contemporary music to the rise of hip-hop culture and music in Cuba as well as to assessed the status of the freedom movement across the globe.
My favorite Belafonte quotes are: “Bring it on! Dissent is central to any democracy” and “Our foreign policy has made a wreck of this planet. I’m always in Africa… And when I go to these places I see American policy written on the walls of oppression everywhere.”
Freedom fighters never retire. Rather, they keep fighting for freedom. Today, we need to raise up a new young generation of freedom-fighting writers, artists, preachers, publishers, bankers, teachers, business leaders, and community activists who will benefit from knowing the history and legacies of leaders like Harry Belafonte and many others.