Fifty years ago this month Harry Belafonte helped make history. On August 28, 1963, Mr. Belafonte, at Martin Luther King Jr.’s behest, recruited celebrities to speak to the estimated 250,000 Americans assembled on the Washington Mall — an event which, for many, defined a decade, even a century.
Though many agree that the nation has made progress in the half century since the rally, Mr. Belafonte says something also has been lost. Back then, Americans were more passionate about change, he said in an interview with the Gazette.
“What we are going to do in celebrating [the anniversary of the March] is to remind America of what it was not so long ago, and see if we cannot call upon that spirit once again to get America back on course,” he said. “One of the things that we can do . . . is to not only recall the reason for that day but to apply it to the needs of today.”
Nostalgic for the activism that defined the civil rights movement, Mr. Belafonte seeks to inspire Americans to emerge from their present state of apathy. His continuing legacy is featured in the 2011 bio-documentary Sing Your Song, which highlights his accomplishments and his passion for the work still to be done.
“The need for engagement by ordinary citizens is once again knocking at the door,” he said.
Mr. Belafonte will present this film on the Vineyard this Wednesday, August 14, at a forum led by his friend Charles Ogletree of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
Mr. Belafonte said he has visited the Island on several occasions. “Long before the Pilgrims,” he joked. He said he is excited to return to a place that gives a “joyous anonymity” to its visitors. “You can be what you want to be once you are there.”
Mr. Belafonte also participated in the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era and has voiced opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At 86, he maintains an active public life, and said he surrounds himself with young people motivated to change their world. “I don’t have any time for the elders,” he said with a laugh.
Made famous by his Jamaican mento-
inspired songs, including the Banana Boat Song (with the memorable lyric “Day-O”), Mr. Belafonte stopped performing in 2003, but his activist spirit is as strong as ever. He said he is part of a new civil rights movement at work examining the justice and legislative system and calling attention to the mass incarceration of young people of color. He travels to prisons from “Maine to Mexico” to advocate for young prisoners and those at risk of incarceration.
Mr. Belafonte is openly critical of all three branches of the federal government, referring to a “reactionary” Supreme Court and a “dysfunctional” congress. He also said the White House, “has more work to do. My advice to the President is to continue to instruct the community to become more awakened to our American needs . . . to become activists in the shaping of our government.”
He blames the administration’s lack of passionate constituency for its inaction on social justice issues. “If [Obama] had the civil rights movement behind him, he would be an entirely different person. If there had been an anti-Afghanistan war movement or an anti-Iraq war movement, he would have been a different president. The absence of those things has forced him into this place of great caution, almost making him immobile.”
In Mr. Belafonte’s view, history’s best presidents, such as Kennedy and Johnson, were backed by important social movements, enabling radical change. “Barack Obama has none of that and we have to give it to him,” he said.
Mr. Belafonte’s connection to Mr. Obama goes back to his support of a program to bring young Kenyans to America to study economics, of which Barack Obama Sr. was a beneficiary.
Ever the optimist, Mr. Belafonte thinks the new civil rights movement may take the nation by storm in the next year. Though the country has been derailed by indifference to the many ills plaguing society, there is hope, he insisted. “Most Americans are spirited people. You touch that chord in them and they will be awakened to the fact they have a mission.”
While he saw potential in the original hip hop movement to bring about change, similar to the protest music of his era, it has since lost its soul, he said. He feels the genre was co-opted by Wall Street, and the use of vulgar, wealth-flaunting lyrics triumphed over meaningful content. Artists like rapper Common are working to bring it back to its activist roots, he said.
One motivator for activism has been
the Tea Party, he added, which he credits with inspiring people to become engaged in civil rights issues. “I think their stupidity and arrogance gives us a lot to look at and reflect on.”
Mr. Belafonte will be honored in a special tribute on Wednesday, August 14, at the annual forum of the The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The forum, Two Aspirin: Race, Place and Health in the 21st Century, takes place at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school. The all-day event is free and open to the public.