“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.
Profiles in Courage...and Not So Much.
Some people do the right thing. Others do the easy thing.
In 1957, John F Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage, a biography focused on eight Senators who served their country with distinction. These men were legislators who stood for their beliefs against overwhelming opposition and JFK's writing about them comes with the understanding that America is better for their stubbornness. It's in this spirit that we've compiled a list of six current members of Congress in a modern (very abridged) take on JFK's famous book. Three of these members of Congress are deserving of their very own Profiles in Courage, and their acts while in office have been nothing short of patriotic. The other three...not so much.
Elizabeth Warren has endured an onslaught of insults from our president, who's given her the nickname Pocahontas and recently made her the butt of an uncomfortable rape joke. While the decorum Warren's shown during the Trump presidency is probably enough to get her on this list, her tireless effort to help those in need is what really makes her stand out as a Senator. She's currently working to scale back Trump's tax cuts and is attempting, with Senator Bernie Sanders, to pass a bill to alleviate Puerto Rico's debt. Unlike many Democrats, she isn't just paying lip service to standing up to president Trump either and has voted with him on an astronomically low 9.2% of all bills passed since January of 2017. If the Liberal #resistance is looking for a hero, they need look no further than Elizabeth Warren.
Kamala Harris is the junior member of this list and has only been in the Senate since January of 2017. That said, she's already using her position to help get more progressive candidates elected, and it seems as though she has the magic touch. In California's primary elections this June, 20 out of the 27 candidates that Harris endorsed came away with a win. On top of this, Harris is leading the defense against Trump in California, fighting to stop him from revoking California's Clean Air Act. She's also supporting a tax relief bill for renters in the Bay Area. Right out of the gate, the freshman Senator is already so involved in the Democratic Party that many are wondering if she'll try for President in 2020. One look at her record as DA of San Francisco and Attorney General of California and it's easy to tell that she doesn't back away from her principles. Harris, like any politician, has made some mistakes along the way, but her steely resolve is already paying dividends in Washington.
Richard Burr is a hardline Republican, voting with Trump 93% of the time. That said, following Trump's meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Burr has led a group of outspoken conservatives in their denouncement of the two world leaders' relationship. The meeting, in which Trump buttered Putin up, calling him "extremely strong and powerful," occurred just day after a dozen Russian military officers were indicted for election tampering. Despite his support for Trump in the past, Burr has publicly stated his belief that "Russia conducted a coordinated cyberattack on state election systems," and condemned Trump for being soft on Putin. Democrats have been complaining about Russian collusion for over a year at this point, but Burr's willingness to disregard his party and attack the president is one of the first principled stands on this issue coming from the right side of aisle.
Not so much:
When it comes to Mitch McConnell, trying to boil his political career down to just one instance of wrongdoing feels impossible. For example, when asked about how to address the upward trend of school shootings over the past few years, he said "I don't think at the federal level there's much that we can do other than appropriate funds." His fence-sitting alone isn't enough to get him on this list, however. Mitch McConnell showed his true colors in vivid 4K display when he spearheaded the movement to stop President Obama from exercising his (Obama's) constitutional right to name a Supreme Court Justice in 2016. Not only was this act unconstitutional, it also has long lasting implications for our federal government's stances on abortion and gay rights. McConnell's actions in 2016, were the catalyst for Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump and McConnell also lended a hand when Trump was trying to decide who to replace Anthony Kennedy with earlier this summer. McConnell's willingness to disregard the law to create a more conservative Supreme Court represents a type of corruption many want removed from Washington.
In the past year or so, Joe Manchin has come out as a staunch Trump supporter, an exceedingly rare thing among Democratic Senators. He isn't very vocal about it, as this type of thing might alienate his supporters, but Manchin's actions speak for themselves. He recently voted in support of funding Trump's border wall and has been cozying up to Trump in recent months due to the fact that Republicans in West Virginia are eyeing Manchin's senate seat. According to FiveThirtyEight's Trump Score, Manchin votes in line with our president about 60% of the time, the highest of any Democratic Senator. He's obviously not part of the unified front most Senate Democrats are putting up against our president, and a cynical pundit might point out that his recent voting habits are less tied to his principles and more tied to the fact that he's up for reelection this year.
In a certain light, Paul Ryan retiring and refusing to work with this administration due to Trump's lack of decorum and the fact that he (Ryan) "feels like he's running a daycare," is understandable. What it comes down to is a difference of opinion between the Republican Party leadership of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and President Trump. Their views overlap in several areas, but Ryan reportedly wanted to distance himself from Trump's immigration policies and racist remarks. All of this invokes a sort of sympathy. The new boss is terrible, so why not find a new job? The only problem is, "finding a new job" in this scenario equates to giving up on the fight. Rather than challenge Trump and continue to battle against the policies Ryan supposedly thinks are unfair, he's turning tail and running away. Ryan has recently stated that he's averted disaster many times by talking to the president one on one. If this is true, and Ryan is the President Whisperer, then he has a responsibility to continue preventing disasters, at least until we have a new president. It's a cowardly act to bow out only halfway through Trump's first term. Some think Ryan is trying to distance himself from Trump in order to later run for a higher office, but the Speaker has denied this. At a moment where he could define his legacy, Paul Ryan has elected to run away.