“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.
Why the Georgia Runoffs Are So Important
This year, on January 5th, Georgia voters will participate in a runoff election to select their state senators. But why is this race so important, important enough to make national news and urgent enough that celebrities and activist groups around the nation are rallying to make sure as many voters as possible get out to the polls?
What's at Stake?
The Georgia runoffs will determine Georgia's two Senate seats. This is so important because the outcome of this election will determine whether there is a Republican or Democratic Senate majority.
To win a Democratic Senate majority, both Democratic candidates — Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock — will have to win their seats. If either Republican candidate, Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, wins, the Republicans will maintain their Senate majority, and Mitch McConnell will remain Senate majority leader; as currently, Republicans hold 50 of the 100 Senate seats and Democrats hold 48, and there are two independents — Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who caucus with the Democrats.
Democrats hold the House with a razor-thin majority, and Joe Biden, a Democrat, also holds the White House. But a Republican Senate can easily negate the efforts of Democratic governing bodies. When he was Senate Majority Leader during Barack Obama's presidency, Mitch McConnell was able to block much of Obama's legislation.
In short, in order to pass a substantial coronavirus relief bill, substantial climate crisis legislation, and many of the other initiatives Biden promised in his campaign, we need a Democratic Senate majority. While Mitch McConnell remains in charge of the Senate, every Democratic-leaning bill will face tremendous roadblocks to actualization.
As Jonathan Chait explains in his Intelligencer article, Only a Democratic Senate Can Produce a Moderate Biden Presidency, "McConnell won't bring a bill to the floor unless most Republicans support it," and, "When Biden takes office, the Republican incentive will lean heavily toward demonizing any Biden-supported initiative as a fiendish socialistic plot, making broad GOP support almost impossible."
That means, to put it bluntly: No $2,000 stimulus check and probably no future thanks to unchecked climate change. The stakes are, in fact, quite high.
In 8 days, Georgia has the opportunity to deliver the U.S. Senate majority by electing @ReverendWarnock and @ossoff… https://t.co/nykdQqPBg2— Stacey Abrams (@Stacey Abrams) 1609180553.0
What Are Runoffs, and Why Do They Exist?
A runoff occurs when there is no clear winner in an election. Georgia law proclaims that candidates must win over 50% of the total vote to win an election; if this doesn't happen, the race goes to a runoff. In the general election, Warnock won the most votes followed by Loeffler, but neither garnered the 50% needed, and all candidates went to runoffs.
Georgia's runoff elections were created in the 1960s as a way to keep white candidates in power, reports The New York Times, in a majority-white state where Black candidates had better shots at winning a plurality of the vote. Runoffs also typically benefit white candidates whose followers typically vote more frequently.
Who Is Running?
Currently, Senator Kelly Loeffler and Senator David Perdue represent Georgia in the Senate. Kelly Loeffler is a businesswoman and devotee of Donald Trump. The richest US Senator, she made headlines for selling $18 million worth of vulnerable stocks after being briefed on COVID-19, meaning she profited from the coronavirus crisis. (Lawmakers are barred from insider training, but a probe into Loeffler's activity was eventually dropped).
Loeffler's opponent, Rev. Warnock, would be Georgia's first Black senator. He is a pastor at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King once preached, and he is a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter. For her part, Loeffler has criticized BLM for what she calls its "Marxist" origins.
David Perdue is a Senator and businessman. Similarly to Loeffler, he sold stocks prior to the 2020 stock market crash. He does not believe in climate change, opposes same-sex marriage and wants to slash the Affordable Care Act.
Perdue's opponent, Jon Ossoff, is a 33-year-old former journalist. His campaign made waves when Perdue failed to meet him in their debate, leaving him to speak to an empty room. Ossoff interned for Congressman John Lewis, who passed away earlier this summer, and has painted himself as a youthful idealist and Democratic moderate.
"Both are representing the New South," said Representative Hank Johnson of Warnock and Ossoff. "It's very symbolic. It's providential. I think Georgia and Georgians have changed quite a lot. There are people with old South ideas — but they're fewer and fewer."
What Are the Odds?
Both Democrats and Republicans are pouring millions into the race, and the Republicans have far outspent the Democrats thus far.
Georgia has not seen a Democratic Senator in 20 years. Republicans have far more money and establishment power on their side. The polls aren't looking great for Democratic candidates, though most do show a close race (though who trusts polls anymore, anyway?).
There's also a long and horrifying history of voter suppression in Georgia that is alive and well today. In addition to the racist history of runoffs themselves, Georgia has always fought to make it difficult for anyone not white to vote. After the 15th Amendment allowed Black men to vote, Georgia employed the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of violence and intimidation at the polls.
It has since closed majority-Black polling spaces, creating hours-long waits. It has required "exact match" signatures on voting records, an effort that disqualified thousands — 80% of the disqualified being people of color.
A recent seven-year investigation found that Georgia purged over 200,000 evoters from its rolls, marking them as ineligible when they actually were eligible. These methods disproportionately affected Black voters, voters living in metro areas, and voters who did not speak English. The list of Georgia's effort to suppress its voters' constitutional rights goes on and on and continues to this day.
Democratic candidates, however, are supported by organizers like those at Fair Fight who are on the ground getting people to the polls. Other organizations like New Georgia Project and Southerners on New Ground have been working tirelessly to reach people who have too long been ignored by modern politics, showing them that their vote can help make a tangible difference in their lives. And with the entire country's eyes on Georgia, it's hard to know what the outcome will be.
Either way, it's clear that there's a new organizing infrastructure in Georgia that's here to stay.
What Can We Do?
If you're from Georgia or know people there, contacting family and friends and asking them to contact their family and friends and to ask the same — a technique known as vote tripling — is definitely one of the most effective ways to get out the vote. In addition, many people are going to Georgia to do in-person ballot curing, poll-watching, canvassing, and voter aid such as keeping voters comfortable in line.
If you're not in Georgia, you can join a phonebank or text bank and make calls or send texts to Georgians all throughout the week.
Like texting? How about expanding electoral access? How about the FABULOUS @Peppermint247? Help@us get out the vote… https://t.co/ZxCfnYrkcv— New Georgia Project (@New Georgia Project) 1609191711.0