For more than five decades, Harry Belafonte has made his voice heard, first as a hit musician who dominated the charts with popular tunes such as the “Banana Boat Song” and later as a Civil Rights activist and outspoken advocate for equal rights both here in America and around the world.
The 85-year-old told attendees at Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University’s 13th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration Tuesday that radical thought is the missing link that has caused the country to stall in its pursuit of social change.
“We have to get back to radical thinking. Most people think that radical thought means violence … somehow that’s an alien thing to be radical, but Dr. King was radical, SNCC was radical, everything we did was radical,” he said. “Radical doesn’t mean evil. Radical means thinking outside of the box. Radical means changing the paradigm.”
Belafonte, a grandfather and great-grandfather, served as keynote speaker for the schools’ joint celebration. The event, themed “On Common Ground: Remembering the Past to Shape the Future,” drew hundreds to WSSU’s Kenneth R. Williams Auditorium to hear from the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award winner.
“This event is important in that it commemorates the work for which Dr. King gave his life,” commented WSSU Chancellor Donald Reaves. “Tonight’s program is much more than a celebration. It’s a call to each of us to take a position because our conscience tells us it’s the right thing to do.”
Belafonte was a man in his 20’s when King approached him about joining the movement. The New York City native said King made an impression on him right from the start.
“His wisdom and his humanity deeply impressed me, but I was curious that he was so young,” Belafonte recalled. “He was two years younger than I was, and for him to speak with such preciseness and such vision was unusual.” A successful entertainer at the time of the movement, Belafonte took an active roll, bankrolling important initiatives such as the 1961 freedom rides, and bailing King out of jail on more than one occasion. He said he and other forerunners of the Civil Rights Movement never imagined that so little would change in the decades that followed the movement.
“We blinked, and here we are again, looking at America in decline. I don’t know where it will all go,” he said.
Americans as a whole lack the passion and optimism they possessed in generations before, and have become complacent, he said.
“It’s a different time. The truth is that America is changing and we are not participating in the change in the way that we should participate,” he stated. “I think President Barack Obama in his speech yesterday gave us the key. He said, ‘I need to have America and its citizens awakened to the challenge.’ The people must participate … if we are to turn the problem around.”
African Americans who once led the way in civil rights issues are now failing to take a stance on important issues such as gun control, he said.
“I don’t understand how the black community, which has perhaps the greatest fallout from the guns … has been so silent on this issue as a group,” he declared. “People of color have abandoned their cause. I’m concerned about the fact that we’ve become so adrift and we’ve become so mindless in the wake of the problem.”
Belafonte insisted that the fight for social justice must go on.
“The struggle is really never over,” he said. “Democracy is in constant need of tending. If you don’t take care of it, it will drop off.”
Earlier that day, two students and two faculty members – one from each institution – were honored for upholding King’s legacy. Dr. Azeez Aileru, director of The Biomedical Research Infrastructure Center at WSSU and student Dustin Pickett, a minister and president of the school’s Alpha Phi Alpha Chapter, took home this year’s Building the Dream awards, along with Wake Forest’s Harold Holmes, who is slated to retire from his position as Associate Vice President and Dean of Student Services on June 30, and Nancy Aguillon, who led the Organization for Latin American students into a successful Latino Awareness Week on Wake’s campus.