“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Our Vermont Savior: Bernie Sanders Ended His Presidential Bid, but His Impact Will Persist
Bernie Sanders is no longer running for president, but he had an indelible impact on American politics.
Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday, April 8th. The news broke at around 11AM ET, and Sanders addressed his supporters in a live-streamed press conference starting at 11:45.
Standing inside his home, flanked by framed photos of bucolic houses, the Brooklyn-born Vermont senator thanked his supporters—specifically mentioning his campaign staff, all the people who called and texted for him, and all the artists and writers who did their best to promote his unprecedented campaign for president.
"The greatest obstacle to social change is the corporate and political establishment," he told the audience as comments flickered down the side of the screen—a Trump 2020 troll, then a Biden supporter, then a disappointed fan calling for him to re-enter.
Sanders, broadcasting from Burlington, Vermont seemed calm, yet focused. He referenced the Nelson Mandela quote, "It always seems impossible until it's done." He reminded his followers that while Medicare for All was a fringe idea in 2016, now multiple democratic candidates supported it in the presidential race, and now progressive ideals have pervaded mainstream American consciousness.
What Bernie Sanders created was a clearing, an opening for ideas that had fallen out of fashion, and for expanding… https://t.co/jJii3DfYo5— Charles P. Pierce (@Charles P. Pierce) 1586376367.0
"Few would deny...our movement has won the ideological struggle," he said. "A majority of the American people now understand that we must raise the minimum wage...that we must guarantee healthcare as a right...that we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels...and that higher education must be available to all, regardless of income."
Bernie was always a policy candidate, fixated on the issues at hand, clearly tormented by the idea that people are still sleeping on the streets in the richest nation in the world. The rest of the image surrounding him—the toxic masculinity, the Internet trolls—may have been true in part, and perhaps that played a role in his campaign's demise, but the truth is that Bernie's campaign failed for the same reason it won the support of millions of young people and working class people across the country: It was always about supporting and uplifting the working class.
"A member of Congress for nearly 30 years, Mr. Sanders has been bitingly frank about the way that money strangles American democracy," wrote Elizabeth Bruenig in a rare pro-Bernie New York Times op-ed, published conveniently after Sanders dropped out. "Rich individuals with a vested interest in defanging egalitarian politics donate to campaigns, PACs, universities and think tanks in hopes of purchasing lawmakers' loyalties and rigging the legislative process in their favor. These oligarchs — the Koch brothers, the Mercers and Michael Bloomberg, among others — exert control over our politics that far exceeds the one vote accorded to each citizen."
In a nation that worships wealth above all else, and that's truly led by massive corporations, perhaps this was a doomed endeavor. Sanders certainly invoked ire across political parties; and sometimes, Bernie supporters did exhibit somewhat cult-like behavior—though from personal experience, this cult mostly consisted people who were deeply inspired and committed to healing American society.
For some, that Sanders dropped out in the midst of the coronavirus crisis only adds insult to injury. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the brilliant New Yorker article "Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders"—published a week before he dropped out—coronavirus is starkly illuminating the validity of points that Bernie has been making all along. "The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this virus unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table," Taylor writes. "As Sanders has counseled, we must think in unprecedented ways… The Sanders campaign...has shown public appetite, even desire, for vast spending and new programs. These desires did not translate into votes because they seemed like a risky endeavor when the consequence was four more years of Trump. But the mushrooming crisis of COVID-19 is changing the calculus. As federal officials announce new trillion-dollar aid packages daily, we can never go back to banal discussions of 'How will we pay for it?' How can we not?"
Though Bernie's acquiescence to Joe Biden is a devastating loss for many of his supporters, particularly those who were never able to even cast a vote for him, in many ways Sanders' decision to drop out was a logical and even ethical choice. As Sanders himself stated in the broadcast, there was no clear path to his election—a crushing Biden victory on Super Tuesday made that clear—and in addition, holding primary elections during the coronavirus crisis poses its own unique health dangers and inevitably would distort the results.
Now, for all intents and purposes, Biden is the Democratic nominee. Though he fell short of actually endorsing Biden, Bernie called the former vice president a "very decent man" and promised to do his best to promote his progressive ideals in the forthcoming campaign.
The road ahead will be long and difficult, regardless of who wins this November. But our Vermont savior, who symbolized such a potent and promising new world, at the very least laid down some seeds. We may not see them this season, but maybe in future years, the ideas Bernie Sanders planted will be able to grow.
"Now is a moment to remake our society anew," Taylor writes. To say Bernie made an indelible impact on American politics is an understatement. In a critical and volatile moment, he inspired a new wave of young progressives to organize, and made millions of voters question the status quo. He prioritized morality in his campaign in an era that seems entirely devoid of it—not morality in terms of tolerance that disguises inaction, but morality defined by what we truly owe to each other.
These ideas will not die out after Sanders exits the primary. If anything, they'll become more local, more grassroots, more rooted in people power. After all, mainstream political parties in America have never been at the forefront of radical people-focused action. That kind of change will always have to come from the actions of everyday folks, organizing and fighting tirelessly for people they don't know.
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