Legendary entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte came to town Feb. 10 and spoke at the St. Sabina Church (1210 W. 78th St.) in a special event honoring Black History Month.
Originally there was doubt about whether Belafonte would show up to the event since he was scheduled to deliver the eulogy for longtime friend, actor Ossie Davis, at Davis’ funeral in New York early the next morning.
However, displaying his trademark charisma and grace, he arrived at the church promptly at 7:30 p.m.
“I was tired when I first got here,” Belafonte said. “But I’ve been tired a while. In my many years on this earth, I’ve acquired invaluable information from many of those I’ve admired. However, the most important thing I’ve learned is that mortality is non-negotiable.”
Belafonte spoke to the crowd of about 300 in depth about his relationship with the late actor Ossie Davis, who himself was a tremendous force in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Their friendship spanned 60 years.
“One of the last times I spoke to him, he said, ‘Harry, if you die before me, which I don’t intend to do, and you speak in memory of me, don’t put words in my mouth,'” said Belafonte. “I told him that I didn’t have to. ‘Your dedication to community and black pride is so strong it more than speaks for you.'”
Belafonte has been called the “consummate entertainer.” He is an artist who has been successful in every facet of the entertainment industry. He’s been a concert singer, a recording artist, a film actor, a Broadway and television actor and producer. However, to many his greatest attribute has been his activity in the human rights struggle, for which he is globally respected.
“I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to live the kind of life I have,” Belafonte said. “I am thankful that I have lived as long as I have and have been able to share my life with great men such as Ossie Davis, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.”
Belafonte noted despite his success he always felt it vital to continue to be active in the community for those less fortunate, and the fact that one achieves a certain status does not exclude them from the socio-economic problems still rampant in many urban communities.
“We’ve been under siege as blacks for over 400 years now,” Belafonte said. “Some have been lifted above that siege, but look at themselves as deserving and entitled. However, they must never forget where they came from and the people whom they left behind that were not nearly as fortunate.
“We have always been under siege as African-Americans, whether it be manifested in our right to vote or attend school. We gained those freedoms, but now we’re in search of economic justice, arguably the most difficult siege to overcome.”
The event was sponsored in part by Lasalle Bank, Walgreens, American Airlines and WVON radio station (1450 AM) whose early morning host, Cliff Kelly served as emcee for the event.
Belafonte went on to talk about how the older generation has to be more willing to discuss the importance of racial pride and the civil rights struggle to a younger generation that has lost that sense of dedication to community which made the successes of the civil rights movement possible.
Belafonte also spoke harshly about the political policies and regimes that are currently governing the country.
“How can this government be so willing to speak about the church and family values while they allow millions of children to starve, while they allow the number of imprisoned black men to continue to grow due to this blatantly biased system, while they allow troops to kill and maim innocent civilians overseas? It’s wrong. They’re all blasphemers!”
Belafonte ended the talk by citing the most important thing for African-Americans to do to overcome the economic challenges within black communities.
“What do you talk to your children about every night? Do they know the importance of their heritage? Do they know who the president of Mali is? Do they know the proud history of people such as Fannie Lou Hamer and W.E.B. Dubois? If not, you must work to educate them,” said Belafonte.
Harry Belafonte made his film debut is 1953’s Bright Road opposite Dorothy Dandridge. He released “Calypso” in 1956. It was the first album in the world that sold over 1,000,000 copies. In 1954, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, and in 1985 he was awarded an Emmy for initiating the all-star “We Are the World” fundraiser. He would later appear in such films as Robert Altman’s Kansas City and White Man’s Burden opposite John Travolta.