January 13, 2014
Topic: Campus News
Harry Belafonte says America needs to move beyond its selective perception of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and embrace the wider change he sought.
The legendary entertainer, activist and humanitarian will present the MLK Symposium keynote address at 10 a.m. Jan. 20 at Hill Auditorium.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Belafonte hosted King and other activists at his New York City home, where campaigns were planned. Today, Belafonte says a broader understanding of King’s vision could inspire efforts to overcome societal ills.
King in his “I Have a Dream” speech challenged his fellow citizens’ fundamental humanity and indifference toward poverty and race. But Belafonte says King also in the speech spoke out against violence towards women, violence in general and against laws to suffocate the poor.
“We took away all of those things about Dr. King that made us feel comfortable, and we chose to ignore the fact that he was a man endowed with the gift for radical thinking. He sought to change social habits, to change patterns and customs,” Belafonte says.
“All of those things we’ve paid little attention to. I think America needs that,” he says.
Of his memories of King, Belafonte says a strong recollection is just before King’s assassination in 1968. It was during a last-minute strategy session on how to promote the Poor People’s Campaign — a huge mobilization and long-term encampment in Washington, D.C. First, King planned to visit Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.
“He came to our home that night and he seemed somewhat distracted. He was sober in his mood and I asked with what was the matter. He said, ‘I’ve been preoccupied with the fact that we’ve fought long and hard for integration, and that maybe we’re integrating into a burning house,’” Belafonte recalls.
The group sat in stunned silence. “We didn’t know quite how to take that definition. I said, ‘What would you have us do?’ He said, ‘We’re just going to have to become firemen.’
“What he meant was we need to put out the flames of our indifference, blinding us to so much, to the destruction of the earth, to the greed that nourishes our lust for profit, while we pay little attention to the destruction of civilization.”
Belafonte says he is often asked what King was like, and who will carry his message today. “I say, ‘Where was Dr. King’s voice before we heard of him?’ He came from Montgomery, Alabama; he was leading a small group of parishioners. All of a sudden in our midst emerged this icon. I think Dr. King was a man of great humility. Intellectually he was very well read, he held multiple degrees, Ph.D.’s included. He was consistently occupied with wanting to know if he was doing the right thing.”
Today, Belafonte says we can dream in the abstract about a better America. But we should also ask what are we doing about it.
“What its your plan for the future, what are your experiences, what are you indifferent to, what sets off alarms?” he asks.