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2006-03-20

After Criticizing Bush, Harry Belafonte Says he was Disinvited from Delivering Eulogy at the Coretta Scott King Funeral

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We hear from legendary musician, actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte on why he was disinvited from speaking at the funeral of Coretta Scott King and how he been blacklisted in places due to his political views. [includes rush transcript]

As we continue to mark the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion we turn now to look at how critics of the war have often been silenced and punished for speaking out against the invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as the Bush administration.

On Saturday, Democracy Now! interviewed legendary singer, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte at The Great Hall at Cooper Union.

He revealed the story behind why he was disinvited from the funeral of Coretta Scott King even though he was a close friend of both Coretta and her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

According to Belafonte, the King family originally invited him to help eulogize Coretta Scott King but the family rescinded the invitation after President Bush announced he would attend the funeral.

Just weeks earlier Belafonte had made international headlines when he spoke out against President Bush during a trip to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez.

In a moment we will hear Harry Belafonte discuss the controversy surround Coretta Scott King’s funeral but we begin with Harry Belafonte talking about how artists are punished for speaking out.

  • Harry Belafonte, speaking at The Great Hall at Cooper Union, March 18, 2006.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Democracy Now! interviewed legendary singer, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte, at the Great Hall at Cooper Union here in New York City. He revealed the story behind why he was dis-invited from the funeral of Coretta Scott King, even though he was a close friend of both Coretta and her late husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. According to Harry Belafonte, the King family originally invited him to help eulogize Coretta Scott King, but the family rescinded the invitation after President Bush announced he would attend the funeral. Just weeks earlier, Harry Belafonte had made international headlines when he spoke out against President Bush during a trip to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez.

HARRY BELAFONTE: No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people — millions — support your revolution, support your ideas, and yes, expressing our solidarity with you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Harry Belafonte speaking in Venezuela earlier this year. In a moment, we’ll hear him discuss the controversy surrounding Coretta Scott King’s funeral, but we begin with Harry Belafonte talking about how artists are punished for speaking out.

HARRY BELAFONTE: It is in culture that I think we come to know one another. And we are in countries murdering, killing, destroying people, and we have never heard their song. And perhaps if we had and perhaps if we would listen to their song, we might find that we are not capable of sending off our sons and daughters to murder.

It’s a great place to be, in the arts. It’s a gift that’s very hard to define. So many great practitioners of art have already said so much, but there is a spirit in it. There is an essence in it, that if it’s applied to the human heart, if it’s applied to inspire people to trust, I think the rewards from it are forever.

One of the things that was a mechanism and a device used to cruelly punish artists who would speak out was to cut them off from their livelihood. They did it to Paul Robeson. They wouldn’t give him a passport. Carnegie Hall wouldn’t hire him or give — or rent him the hall. Many of the places that he had sung, where people loved him, were closed to him for a long period of time. But when that case was fought and won in the courts, he was nourished again, because everybody in the world was waiting for him.

And what has permitted me to sustain my own life in the midst of so much cruelty and degradation — I’ve lost a lot from those who control culture, those who will not let my song be in the environment of their sponsorship — just my remarks on President Bush, that he’s a terrorist, I lost a lot of work, even in universities, not even singing, just fraternities and students that have invited me to come to speak. Many of those doors in those universities were closed to me, because those who sit on the board and the board of trustees said we are displeased with what he said. He’ll have no place in this institution. And if he does, you’ll no longer have our support. So the president and the dean becomes frightened and becomes concerned. And it’s easier to let go than it is to stand against the oppressor.

AMY GOODMAN: Who cancelled your engagements?

HARRY BELAFONTE: A university in Virginia, a company called [Eye Tech]. There is a difference between Eye Care, the foundation, and [Eye Tech] — a company made up of doctors and scientists in the world of ophthalmology.

I was supposed to have gone to Chicago, and they said, "No, we have to withdraw the contract." That experience is not uncommon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After Democracy Now! aired today, Belafonte informed us that the school was Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey where he was scheduled to speak soon. In addition, he said the Kansas City Young Audiences also canceled an appearance.]

But I say that there is a place when one has to really make a choice, and sometimes the choice is not easy until you make it, and then you understand the rewards that are there from the choice you made, which may have at the beginning frightened you or threatened you or intimidated you.

AMY GOODMAN: More with Harry Belafonte in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We spoke with him on Saturday night on the 10th anniversary of Democracy Now! at Cooper Union in New York City. I was speaking with him along with Juan Gonzalez, co-host on Democracy Now! and Pacifica Radio station WBAI’s program director, Bernard White. We asked Harry Belafonte to explain what happened, why he didn’t attend the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

AMY GOODMAN: Harry, I have a quick question, talking about the children and talking about Dr. King in Birmingham. Coretta Scott King recently died, and it was quite a remarkable funeral. Over 10,000, 15,000 people came out, four presidents, many senators. Reverend Joseph Lowery, while President Bush was sitting right on the dais, talked about weapons of misdirection right here, and President Carter talked about Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King being spied on, and Maya Angelou stood up and said, "I speak here for Harry Belafonte and others." Did you try to go to Coretta Scott King’s funeral?

HARRY BELAFONTE: What had happened was that when Dr. King came on one of his very first trips to New York, he was in Harlem, and a deranged black woman stabbed him, and he was — the blade was just millimeters away from his heart, and to remove the instrument, his life was in jeopardy, and it was a very delicate operation. And it was then that I understood that — after seeing Dr. King and talking to him, his first concern was what would happen to his family. And I said to myself, our leader cannot be concerned about that. That burden should not be on his shoulders. There are other aspects of the burden that would be his in relation to it, but not that. So that it was demanded and responded to that forever the welfare of his family would never be in jeopardy with him being at the helm of the movement, and we brought resources, and it was my task to direct all that, watching the kids grow, put money aside for their studies, to take care of Coretta, to make sure she had every convenience at her disposal to go, come while her husband was incarcerated.

So the intimacy of that experience was something that I had become accustomed to, and when Dr. King was murdered, I was in Atlanta in their home, and we separated ourselves from others who were there in the living room, and she said, "Would you come with me." We went into the bedroom, and she said, "Help me select the clothes that I must — we must dress him in." And it was a very private and a very remarkable thing to — the intimacy of it with her. And as we were selecting the suits and the shirt and the tie and laying it out, she sat on the bed, and she kind of — a place where she had slept so often with her husband, and all those memories. And I said, "What is it?" She says, "You know, I’m worried about where this is all going. I’m worried about the nation, the rage, the anger, and I need to know what to do." And we talked for a second. Then I said to her, "You know, at this very moment in Memphis, thousands of sanitation workers are on hold, because Dr. King was supposed to have been there tomorrow to lead that movement and to speak to the people, and before your husband, our leader, is put in his grave, if you have the will and the capacity to go down there tomorrow and stand up before those workers and let the world know that the movement has not been interrupted, that the process continues, and that all of us, as strong or as weak as we may be, will step into the breach and do what must be done." And she did, and she went down, and she spoke, and we came right back.

Now, all through the years since then, the building of the King Center, many choices of things that she made to do, because she was in her own right very involved for Dr. King. She was one of the —- she was very, very committed to the peace movement, and as a matter of fact, in Europe, during the assassin—- the missile crisis and whatnot, we gave — we put on a peace concert for 250,000 Germans in Cologne, mostly students, and the moment when Coretta King — I called and asked her to come to speak. It would mean a lot to the young people there. She came, and I have never, ever heard a declaration of approval like those young German youth did when she came, and she had a sense of her own power. She had a sense of her own capacity to bring influence and to be revered for the work she did.

When she died, none of us knew that she was in Mexico, that she had — I knew that she was ill. I knew about the heart attack, the defibrillation and the stroke. But — and I knew she had cancer, but I thought the cancer was contained, and when she went to Mexico, she was there with her children, and I got the news completely without knowing any of the details, so for a few days we didn’t know what was happening. Where is she? Who’s bringing her home? When is the funeral? When is the this, when is the that?

And finally, I left a call —- I left a message on the phones of the children, saying, "Please give me a call. I know this is a difficult moment, but there are things that must be done, and I would like to help if I can." I was then called a day later and told that, yes, that it was on that Tues—- this was on a Friday, Friday evening, that the funeral was going to take place that Tuesday, and that it would start at noon, and that with all the people that were being invited, that it was — I was to be one of these people delivering the eulogy, and that my time would be at somewhere around 12:30 or 1:00, and I said, "Fine." And knowing this, I began to put my thoughts together.

That Saturday, Bush declared he was coming. He would be there. That Sunday, I began to change my speech, not to be rude or to be attacking, but to integrate this moment into what needed to be said. And then, that Monday morning, I got a call, and I was told that the invitation that had been extended to me had been pulled. I was uninvited. A woman by the name of Skinner and a Reverend by the name of Lawrence was the one who called me to tell me that I was uninvited, and when that call came, I called and spoke to one of the children. They said, these are the events, and I need to be counseled as to how this has come about, and I was told that I would get a call shortly, and it would all be clarified. And then, when the final call came, it was — they were sorry, but the invitation — the withdrawing of the invitation would stand and that if I came down, they would find a place for me in the church, but I would not speak. And I did not go at all. I did not know how to deal with that.

What struck me was on the day of the ceremony, I saw how the altar was adorned. I saw who sat there, and as the camera moved about, I saw who was sitting in the audience, and I saw all of the power of the oppressor represented on the stage, and all those who fought for the victories that this nation was experiencing and enjoying sat in the outhouse, sat out in the field, sat removed, and if it not been for Lowery, for President Carter and for Maya Angelou, we would have had no voice and no representation at all.

Some ministers who were quite angry at all of this said, "Come on down here. Let’s — let’s — We have to talk to the press," and I said, "Talk to the press about what?" "About this. We cannot let it stand." I said, "I don’t think that’s appropriate. These are the children of my friend. These are the children of the movement. Where did we let them get caught? Why was Bernice giving this kind of sermon? How did you let Reverend Long become the minister of choice? Why wasn’t it at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King preached? And before we go public and begin to vent our anger, let us understand what role we played in this capitulation that has led to this moment, and let us try first to repair it rather than to go into public discourse.

When do we sit in a circle of healing? When we begin to talk about getting back to where we lost stride. How do we fix this? Not how do we play the vanity game, and get off on going public and talking about how I was crucified. You know, it’s what it is, and there is a way in which we have to do this that not only prevents — I don’t know that there’ll be another moment quite like that, because Dr. King and Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, folks like that were so rare that to be a part of the final ceremony of their departure is a rare moment in history, but I think that it goes along with what I have been saying here. What role have we played in letting all this happen? Where were we? What were we doing that had us so distracted? How can it be this way? How did you priests and ministers let the evangelical rightwing Christian forces co-opt the greater truth about Christianity and the philosophy of liberation? And how did you all let that happen, and where are your voices in opposition publicly?

Everybody has a part in this. Everybody has something to look at, and I think it is a collective experience, and that’s why I think rather than sitting here drifting, we’ve got to talk about this, not just where we failed and where you failed, and we’ve got to come out of this discourse and this discussion, not just talking about it but saying, "Here’s where we go," and take courage in the fact that we can turn this around, because the truth of the matter is we are the only ones that can turn this around. Nothing and no one else can do it. Nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, describing his dis-invitation from giving a eulogy at the funeral of Coretta Scott King.

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