The world lost a giant this week. In his 96 years on this planet, Harry Belafonte has left no trace – He blasted landscapes, etching and etching roads and paths that others could walk on, both as activists and as artists. He loved and loved music, but the civil rights fight became the calling into which he poured his intellect, clarity of purpose, and impatience with injustice. He had a voice and he used it. His friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I think it’s true, but only if we stick with it and pull it off, like Dr. King and Harry Belafonte. I knew Harry Belafonte one of the most important lessons of my life – while tying his shoes.
I’m sitting on Harry’s bed. There is only one chair in this small hotel room, and Bob Geldof sits on it while we watch our host get dressed. I’m reminded of the old French proverb “No man is cool in the eyes of his servant,” but Harry Belafonte is cool even when he’s down in his pants. what am I doing here? His backing band once included Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He is the king of Calypso. He sang “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”, a song released on the first ever million-selling album. He’s also a lifelong brawler for equality. And good looking he probably never had to check himself in the mirror.
Now we are his mirror as he tugs at the waistband of his pants and locks us in his gaze, one eyebrow raised suggesting a group questioning of his appearance, but no interest in responding. We are another kind of mirror. Belafonte, now in his early 70s, has been fighting injustice since before we were even born. With a mixture of magic and preaching, he wrote the playbook for every artist-activist who came after him. He reminds us that in the 1960s he walked in stride with his friend Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement, and as he stooped to tie his shoelaces—which I would gladly do—he tells us a story that has shaped every day of my life since.
Of the Irish writers in the theater – Wilde and Beckett, Synge and Behan – join the Irish in politics, where we expect a similar bondage with the arrival on the stage of the Irish kings, the Kennedys. not exactly. Harry Belafonte spins on Bobby Kennedy as the heel, an obstacle in the way of the civil rights movement. I want to object that this was not what I saw it. But then I remember I’m not black, I wasn’t there, and anyway, Harry has the word. He also has a speaking voice that sounds as if a fuzzbox is attached to his vocal cords, bringing melodrama to his simplest expressions. And with that whisper, he takes us back in time.
“When Jack Kennedy appointed Bobby to the position of Attorney General in ’61, it was such a setback to our struggle that it caused one of the most heated debates we have ever had in SCLC. [Southern Christian Leadership Conference].
“Everyone in the room was talking about Bobby Kennedy. How he lacked the inspiration of his brother John the President. He is known to have warned JFK against trying to reconcile our agenda with that of the Democratic Party. Bobby was sure that if the White House got too close to the civil rights movement, It would cost Democrats dear in the South, where it was already a stretch to hold the highest office in the land as a Catholic.” By all accounts, he admitted, “Scratch the surface and a lot of those carrying the Democratic banner wouldn’t exactly be anti-slavery.”
As the conversation grew more intense, Harry recalled how he turned to Martin Luther King, who could tell he was tired of the bitch about Bobby Kennedy. Martin slams his fist on the table making everyone off. “Does anyone here have anything positive to say about our new Attorney General?”
The reply comes: “No, Martin, that’s what we tell you.” “There is nothing good about this man; he is an Irish redneck, who has no time for the struggles of a black man.”
Harry said Dr. King had heard enough and adjourned the meeting. “Gentlemen, I will release you into the world to find one positive thing to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that one positive thing will be the door through which our movement must pass.”
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If I wasn’t sure what I was looking for at Harry Belafonte’s feet, suddenly everything became clear. The search for common ground begins with the search for higher ground. Even with your opponents. Especially with your opponents. A bright moment for me and a conviction that has influenced my life as a fighter ever since. The simple yet profound idea that you don’t have to agree to everything if the one thing you agree to is important enough. But, wait, school isn’t out.
Harry Belafonte hasn’t finished our lesson.
He continues, “Years later, as Bobby Kennedy lay dying on the kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, he became a civil rights hero. A leader, not a slacker, in our movement, and I ask myself to this day if we had wronged him in those early days.” I’ll never know, but I’m still grieving his loss.” “So did you find him?” Bob asks, bringing up the question we’ve been thinking about. “When the meeting resumed, did you find something positive that Dr. King was looking for?” “We did. Bobby was close to his bishop, who in turn was close to some of the clergy from the south. We found a door to move through.”
This excerpt is published with permission from the author. “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story” is now available
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