“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.
Four Legislative Priorities Democrats Should Push
Democrats have control of the House for the first time in eight years. Now, they have a mandate to push for a bold agenda on infrastructure, healthcare, immigration, and voting rights.
After months of warnings, the "Blue Wave" finally came to shore. Democrats took back control of the House, gaining 32 seats, a number that could increase to 38 or 39, depending on the results of the uncalled races. With the party back in charge of the lower chamber, much of the discussion around what their priorities should be has revolved around investigating the president and his myriad offinancial and political scandals. House Democrats have a clear mandate to fulfill their constitutional duty to provideoversight of the White House, but Democrats also have a mandate to address a number of major legislative issues. Though it's unlikely Democrats that will get any of these priorities pushed before the president and a Republican Senate, it's crucial that they signal to their voters what they want to done should they win the presidency and the Senate in the future.
As a candidate and in the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump promised to tackle the nation's crumbling infrastructure. That, of course, has gone nowhere and every "Infrastructure Week" ended in some scandal, quickly becoming anongoing joke. But thestate of America's infrastructure is nothing to joke about. Infrastructure spending has long been a Democratic Party priority before Trump attempted to co-opt it. Democrats should push that issue once again, proposing a bold infrastructure plan to repair crumbling roads and bridges, modernize public transportation systems, expand access to high-speed, fiber-optic Internet, and invest in green energy projects like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
Such an infrastructure plan would signal the party's commitment to investing in neglected communities and funding renewable energy projects such as a broader plan to combat climate change—not to mention open the door to the manyeconomic benefits of infrastructure spending. It would also establish a clear contrast with Trump's previous infrastructure plan that's been criticized as agiveaway to private contractors. The president has said he is willing to work with Democrats, so why not press him to keep his word? Democrats would be wise to pressure the president and his Republican supporters to prioritize infrastructure, or face political consequences.
No other issue played a bigger role in the Democrats' midterm success than healthcare. Their electoral message on healthcare was simple: Protect people with pre-existing conditions, expand coverage and stop proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Now they must deliver on these promises. House Democrats can immediately pass legislation to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, pressuring Trump and other Republicans who have vowed to do the same to keep their word. With a full repeal of the Affordable Care act now temporarily off the table, Democrats should push to expand coverage and address the limitations of the ACA. These can range from introducing incremental policies that get support from more moderate Democrats, like legislation tostabilize insurance markets, to bolder policies that attract the progressive wing of the party, like allowing Medicare more power tonegotiate drug prices and proposing aMedicare buy-in for 55 to 64-year-olds.
While the long-term goal for the party should be to push for a Medicare for All system, these are positive steps toward a goal that still has a lot of opposition from within the party. Finally, any budget proposed by House Democrats should reverse any funding cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats have an ideal opportunity to push for a positive vision on healthcare and continue to have the upper hand on the issue heading into 2020.
Bitter political battles over immigration, especially over funding for the border wall and the fate of DACA, will be a prominent feature of politics the next two years. Democrats are right to be alarmed over the administration's immigration policies like family separation and ending DACA, but now it's crucial they advocate for an immigration agenda in contrast to the Republican agenda. With the fate of DACA likely in thehands of the Supreme Court, Democrats must push for a long-term legislative solution. The most stable solution is the passage of the Dream Act. It would also be politically beneficial for the Democrats to bring it to the floor cleanly, without a compromise on funding for the wall. Furthermore, Democrats should schedule hearings about the family separation policy and Trump's pre-election decision to bring troops to the southern border in response to the migrant caravan. Democratic voters havebecome more liberal on immigration, and it's important the party signal to its base that they are willing to find solutions on the issue without compromising its core values.
Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the effects of voter suppression, notably in Georgia, North Dakota, and Florida. These voter suppression efforts have only increased since theSupreme Court struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of racial discrimination to get permission from the Department of Justice when enacting any changes in voting laws. In response, states around the country immediately passed strict voter ID laws. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decision left the door open for future legislative action. House Democrats can immediately take action andstrengthen the Voting Rights Act. They would also be wise to propose legislation to make Election Day a federal holiday, or move Election Day to a Sunday, as it is in most places around the world. While Republicans are busy spreadingconspiracy theories about voter fraud, Democrats should take the opposite path and make it clear they will fight continuing discrimination in voting. For strategic and moral purposes, the party has an obligation to extend democracy in every way when voting rights are under tremendous pressure.
Dan is a writer, thinker and occasional optimist in this random, chaotic world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.