“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.
From voting rights and gerrymandering to marijuana legalization and healthcare, many consequential issues are on the ballot. Here are some major ballot measures to watch on Election Day.
This Election Day, most eyes will be on the battle for control of the House and Senate and the many contentious gubernatorial elections. But lower on the ballot there are many progressive policies at stake. These range from voting rights and gerrymandering to marijuana legalization and healthcare. Many of these policies are as consequential as which party controls Congress and worth following closely on Tuesday.
Amendment 4, Florida
There are currently 1.6 million Floridians that can't vote because of previous felony convictions.Amendment 4 could change all of that, automatically restoring the voting rights for those who have finished their sentences. Florida remains one of four states that doesn't automatically restore the voting rights for the formerly incarcerated. It has the highestvoter disenfranchisement rate in the country, and nearly 10 percent of eligible voters can't vote. Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts black Floridians, which is unsurprising given itsracist history.
As an amendment to the Florida Constitution, it needs at least 60 percent to pass. But aSeptember poll showed it passing with 71 percent. In a state long known for close, contentious elections, its passage has major implications for 2020 and the political future for the state and the nation. Above all, Amendment 4 is about basic fairness and fully accepting felons back into society. It's completely undemocratic that one of the most populous states in the country still doesn't allow those who have paid their debt to society to exercise their constitutional rights.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Medicaid Expansion in Montana, Idaho, Utah and Nebraska
Voters in four red states are voting to expand Medicaid on Tuesday; these are four of the 18 states that have yet to do so. The Supreme Court ruled the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) Medicaid expansion was optional for state governments, and the expansion has faced obstacles in Republican states. If passed, these referendums would expand benefits to people 138% below the poverty line — meaning thousands of low income people would gain access to the program.
That four Republican strongholds may likely expand a key part of the ACA speaks to the broaderpopularity of progressive policies. It further shows the GOP'sweakness on healthcare and the disapproval of the Republican message on the issue. Finally, it indicates that a progressive message on healthcare can make Democrats more competitive in red states.
Recreational Marijuana Legalization in Michigan and North Dakota
The continued growth of marijuana legalization across the country might take its next step on election day. Voters in Michigan and North Dakota can become the latest states with legal marijuana. Both referendums would legalize the recreational use and sale of marijuana for anyone 21 and older. But what sets the referendum in North Dakota apart from the one in Michigan is that it would automatically expunge all marijuana convictions.
The legalization of recreational marijuana is following the similar path of marriage equality, which was once a deeply unpopular issue that gradually expanded across the states before becoming legal nationwide. Should one or both be approved, it would signal a greater consensus on legal marijuana. It would further pressure Democrats to adopt it as a campaign issue going forward, in addition to pushing the federal government to reconsider its harsh stance on legalization. North Dakota's referendum is of particular interest as a barometer for the salience of legalization in conservative states, as well as establishing a model for future efforts in other states that address expungement.
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Independent Redistricting in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah
Partisan gerrymandering is high on the list of the most undemocratic practices in the American political system. If Democrats win the popular votes in the House but fail to win a majority, many saygerrymandering could be to blame. Just this year the Pennsylvania Supreme Courtstruck down the state's congressional map as being unfairly drawn by the Republican legislature. Redistricting is typically the responsibility of state legislatures, and the party in power usually draws congressional and state legislative maps to their political advantage.
But ballot measures in four states could change that. Proposed measures could put the responsibility of redistricting in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan commission rather than legislatures. These referendums would signal the real beginnings of a movement to chip away at the scourge of partisan gerrymandering and radically change the way redistricting is done. Independent redistricting commissions could create congressional and legislative maps that are more equally representative of voters. The establishment of independent redistricting is likely to have a major impact on the redrawing of congressional districts following the Census in 2020.
Proposition 10, California
You won't hear much about it in national politics, but housing is a hugely contentious issue in local politics, pitting tenants against landlords and property developers. After all, ask any renter in a major city, and the lack of affordable housing is a major source of stress and frustration. Nowhere is the affordable housing crisis more pronounced than in California — the state with thehighest rents in the country. But on the ballot in California this Election Day is a measure that may offer a solution to the state's affordable housing crisis.Proposition 10 asks voters to repeal a California law that prohibits any municipality from instituting rent control. This is the first statewide effort anywhere in the country to address affordable housing. Rent control has always been controversial in cities nationwide, but there is evidence that rent control can be aneffective tool in lowering cost of living. The opposition to Prop 10 has been fierce, as tens of millions of dollars have poured into the campaign from both landlord and developer groups. Though polls show the measurelikely failing, its presence on the ballot reveals the rising potency of housing as an issue in state, local, and, soon enough national politics.
Dan is a writer, thinker and occasional optimist in this random, chaotic world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.