“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.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Message of Non-Violence Has Been Used Against Black America
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is defined by his pursuit of equal rights for Black Americans through unity and peace.
He is canonized in American history as the patron saint of change through passive measures.
His infamous "I Have A Dream" speech was a rallying cry for this country to live up to its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King urged us to be a nation that advocates for the inclusion of all of its citizens in the American Dream, no matter their race.
But Dr. King's message of non-violence and civil disobedience is often misinterpreted. For some in the Black community, it means doing absolutely nothing in the face of physical harm from white people. In the hands of many conservatives and racists, his beliefs are a gag order against racial injustice. They have distorted King's dream in an attempt to make us docile.
The marches and protests during the Civil Rights Movement were peaceful acts of civil disorder. King implored members of the movement not to engage in chaos and destruction. Unfortunately, these non-threatening gatherings became violent due to agitation from law enforcement, despite honoring King's wishes of peaceful resistance.
At the time, King's call for unity and equal rights was considered radical and unpatriotic. The FBI had him under surveillance, and he was the recipient of death threats from white extremists. King was a beacon of peace; but, his cause made him a target for hate.
The narrative surrounding King's death has been warped, as well. Revisionist history paints him as a martyr when, in reality, he was a victim of white supremacy. His assassination in 1968 was a cruel irony. He preached peace only for its antithesis to be his demise.
Today, civil unrest is at an all-time high. Innocent Black lives are taken by police almost daily, and the election of President Trump brought to light how much America hasn't changed since Jim Crow. We've applied the same tactics that King advised his followers to use, only to receive the same treatment decades later.
When highlighting the level of violence against non-aggressive demonstrations, many on the Right feel that Black people's right to protest is a justification for police brutality. In their eyes, the need to peacefully assemble to combat racism is excessive and unnecessary, as if any non-violent uprising is a threat and has to be silenced to preserve law and order.
Even Black entertainers and athletes have faced public backlash for speaking against racial inequality. NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed for kneeling in protest against police brutality. Kendrick Lamar's "Alright", a song about Black people overcoming struggle, was deemed an anti-police anthem. White America demonized them and others for using their platforms to bring awareness.
Meanwhile, white nationalism doesn't face the same level of persecution that Black liberation receives. Racists and fascists that subscribe to Trumpism are considered "patriots." But Black people seeking a level playing field are labeled as treasonous. One side has resorted to rioting as a last resort. The other looked at insurrection as a first solution.
Over 50 years after his death, Dr. King's message of peaceful resistance is a patronizing jab at the Black community. His philosophy isn't a factor when barbaric bigots are looking to harm us. Instead, it's as a pseudo restraining order to thwart our attempts at seeking change and potential retaliation.
For many Americans, Dr. King was a Civil Rights Superman. Unfortunately, his stance has become the movement's kryptonite.
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