“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.
The Subjectivity of the Fifth Amendment
While the Fifth Amendment is a crucial marker of individual rights, the lack of clear definitions and changing political landscapes make its application dangerously subjective.
Your right to "plead the fifth" is a constitutional protection against self-incrimination, but it's only one component of the legal provision that safeguards your rights from unjust criminal prosecution.
The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, being forced to incriminate oneself, prosecution without a jury of one's peers, and eminent domain. The legal precedents establishing due process protect more than just criminals; everyday citizens are protected from abuse of the justice system.
The provision, in full, dictates: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
In 2019, what are the limitations of these protections? Are there exceptions? What situations would require you to invoke them? What should you say to activate these rights?
While some may see "pleading the fifth" as tantamount to admitting guilt, it symbolizes your protection from self-incrimination. Cornell Law School defines the term to mean, "The act of implicating oneself in a crime or exposing oneself to criminal prosecution." When questioned by law enforcement during an investigation or during a criminal trial, an individual may refrain from answering questions or submitting requested materials to officials if it's believed that doing so may result in new criminal charges.
However, issues unrelated to criminal matters are not always protected from self-incrimination rights. For example, tax issues are not covered under the law so as to prevent individuals from withholding materials from the IRS. Furthermore, the law becomes murky when external circumstances could easily influence a person's ability to remain silent. Egregious examples of this right being circumvented include forced confessions and unjust interrogations.
As to due process, it's well known that before you can be found guilty of a crime, a grand jury of 16 to 23 people must be presented the case in private and deem that criminal charges justified. While a grand jury acts as "a kind of buffer or referee between the government and the people," an individual has a right to trial by jury. However, the Constitution's vital dictum against citizens being "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law" is only defined through a series of court rulings and provisions.
Of note is that due process protections are designed for individuals and application "in each case upon individual grounds." Sadly, this means that whole groups or communities are not, strictly speaking, as entitled to due process. For example, entire student bodies, teachers, or consolidated groups like protesters can be given treatment outside of lawful protections.
Lastly, eminent domain is the restricted power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use. Under the Fifth Amendment, the government can only use this power if they provide the private owners with fair compensation. However, abuse of eminent domain is fairly common.
For example, in 2019, Donald Trump defended his demand for a border wall separating the United States and Mexico under the right of eminent domain. While it was originally meant to be an economic benefit, there are no codified measurements of what constitutes "just compensation." The seizure of land by the government quickly becomes exploitative and a violation of privacy that's paramount to government theft.
While the Fifth Amendment is a crucial marker of individual rights, the lack of clear definitions and changing political landscapes make its application dangerously subjective. From due process to eminent domain, there are more exceptions than clear definitions of "justice."
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