We hear legendary actor, singer, activist and humanitarian Harry Belafonte speaking after receiving the 2004 Human Rights Award by Global Exchange in San Francisco. [Includes transcript]
Today we hear the words of legendary actor, singer, activist and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte.
The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. He dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to enlist in the Navy. After serving in World War II he returned to New York and began a successful acting and singing career. He spearheaded the Calypso craze with a string of hits and his third album, titled “Calypso”, became the first in history to sell over 1 million copies.
Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, he became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the two quickly became friends.
Belafonte sent money to bail Dr. King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, and supported voter-registration drives and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
In the 1980’s he helped initiate the star-studded “We Are the World” single, which raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia, calling global attention humanitarian crises in Africa.
A longtime anti-apartheid activist, Belafonte hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global oppression.
Last week, the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange awarded Harry Belafonte with the 2004 Human Rights Award. In his acceptance speech, he spoke about racism, poverty, the elections, war and resistance.
- Harry Belafonte, speaking at the 2004 Human Rights Awards Ceremony in San Francisco on June 10, 2004.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Being in the Freedom Struggle, I’ve discovered it is not a part-time job. And it’s certainly cannot be treated as a hobby. Fortunately, there are many in our nation who do just that. They are all decent people. They mean well. They believe in many of the great American ideals. And they also choose not to see or to hear or to taste or to believe that we can perpetuate and involve ourselves as a nation in the kind of villainy that is so dramatically identified in so many parts of the world. To be honored by your peers and those who believe as you do is, in itself, the only rewards, I think, that one needs. Paul Robeson, my mentor, who influenced me greatly, once said to me get them mean people. Get them to sing your songs and they’ll want to know who you are. And so “Daio” and “Havanaguila” and others, all the songs that were sung on the tongues of others or from the tongues of others in their language, all of the songs that were sung by people who were trapped in the abyss of poverty and songs, glorious songs of courage to extricate themselves and their oppression, all these forces in the world that have inspired me to put my life in the service of freedom are the ones who deserve this award. I am just an instrument in which they speak. I should find it very easy to speak here this evening, after all, I’m among people who share so many of my beliefs. And are prepared to struggle valiantly for our beliefs. But I find it difficult not because you are who you are, but because we find out at this moment that a place that is very unfamiliar to me in many ways. It is not the oppression that is alien to me. It is not racism or sexism or poverty. All that has been a constant. I was born into much of that. Poverty was my mother’s midwife. She had her children in poverty. But she also found a road to bring us a sense of purpose and she taught us how to be valiant in the face of oppression. Her courage was translated vigorously to us and with her launching of our lives, she directed me to places that eventually came to be seen many positive and rewarding ways. From Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. And Alan Baker and by so many who are great and courageous people who have been shot at and beaten and others have been so exposed, it was worth the price, it’s worth the journey, it was worth getting them to hear the song and to follow the melody and to sing the lyrics of life. That’s what it’s all about. I thought at this time in my life, I would be somewhere in the Caribbean on the beach, sipping a rum, reflecting on the good deeds that have transpired in a lifetime. But I find that no such luxury has afforded itself to me. I cannot sit on a beach because each motion of a wave on a surf, I hear the voices of many who do not have such opportunity. I always travel and try to travel with anonymity and go away on what I call my time to distance myself from my passion. To just take a moment to reflect and breathe and to think about where I’ve been and where I have to go. And I do that with the desire for anonymity and I go to these way out places that I’ve never been before and I try to blend in to the ethnicity of the place I’m visiting. And on a recent visit to such a place, I walked in a tiny village that had a record store. And the music was blaring through the speakers and I walked into the store, hoping to find the music of the indigenous , to find the solitude that might be inspiring, to translate it into, carry its melody and its thoughts to millions who may never have heard it. As I leaped through the bins looking at records, I was quite taken with how many were of American artists. They were the most popular. And I began to look through the bins, name after name after name and I became aware of the absence of one. I was a little — I was struck really with some wonderment as to what — why this person was not in the bins. In a more plentiful way. And I walked up to the woman who was the manager and I said to her, “Excuse me, Miss, but do you have any records by Harry Belafonte?” [laughter] and she looked at me a moment and then she says “Who?” [laughter] and I said. “Harry Belafonte.” She said, “You know, we have no records here like him. But, you know, a lot of people come in off the Port and they come in and play it all the time looking for music and they ask quite often for that man. But, you know, I think He long time dead!” [laughter] beyond the humility that such an utterance brings — [laughter] it also made me ponder. It’s to realize that no matter what you do as a singer, you may be able to cage him or her, you can cage the singer, but you may never be able to cage the song. [applause] I sing a song of freedom everywhere I go. The people who I choose to sing these songs to and whom I speak to and for, how wonderful the mark of a human being. I recently took a group of men and women to California and from other parts of the united states, Alabama to be exact, a young man by the name of Alejandro who runs a wonderful organization called Los Amigoes. A young man from South Central Los Angeles that works in the prison culture by the name of Bo Taylor. We went to Africa to visit with the Ethiopian farmers, to take a look at what was happening to them and to try to understand that they sing the same songs we do and in many ways even more passionately. They are songs of constant, their needs are great, and I’ve come to understand that to care for freedom and pay for it is a never ending job. Democracy is very fragile. And if we do not tend to it and care for it, it will disappear. Those who are the villains among us do their work 24 hours a day. They are constant in their need to oppress, in their need to cheat, in their need to steal, in their need to rob us of our dignity. Why they are so possessed, greater minds than mind have tried to understand it and to find reasonable explanation that you see century after century fail, in any finite definition, that might lead us to a final cure. I am of the beliefs, however, that if we stay the course, it will be a constant in our defense of democracy and yet we never compromise and refuse to negotiate with the enemy we will prevail.
AMY GOODMAN: Actor, Singer, Activist Harry Belafonte.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Of course, we’re going to vote for Kerry. [applause] Bush has left us no alternative. But I also must tell you that Kerry has not carried my endorsement. He’s a nice guy. He’s done some truly remarkable things. He’s been a Vietnam soldier and his role in the congress, with the Iran Contra. He’s done some remarkable things. But for some reason, it was in our great struggle that he’s chosen to not deal very much. He’s too busy trying to capture the right. And i wonder why he feels that it is more important to spend his resources and to capture the right than to at least pay attention and to make some utterance and tell us he has a vision on what to do with poverty and racial oppression and the plight of women in the 21st century in which he is stepping in to lead us. [applause] When John Kennedy, when the Presidency was decided by 100,000 votes, arguably it could be said that there were only a handful of black men to vote and women turn out to support him. If they had not voted there perhaps would have been a different President and a different course in our history. To know how critical and how delicate that moment was is to ignore history and to not understand that we sit in the same precarious place at this very moment. It is not the first time we have been touched by the state’s mechanism to owe press. After all, McCarthyism is very much Ashcroftism. [applause] the war in Vietnam pursues the same blueprint that has our government pursuing the war in Iraq and in other places. What is going on in the reversal of the attempts being made to reverse roe verse wade and brown verse the board of education and all things that we struggled so valiantly for, and is threatened is not new. They’re all once again trying to mobilize and get our voices together to make a difference. And I think we will prevail. We are still, however, looking for our leaders and our leaders fit in our midst. If you think and reflect on all those who we admire and have mentioned here this evening, many of them came out of the ranks of the people who are engaged in struggle, who came from poverty, who came out of racism, who came out of a place where for a long time they languished, ignored. I believe that we may march and we may show our numbers in great volume from time to time. We do that. Women marching on Washington in large numbers. Peace activists turning out occasionally to demonstrate their passions of peace. These things go on and we see them. But what we don’t seem to understand is that we have not yet, in some profound and meaningful way, interrupted the way in which the enemy does business. [applause] early on, I was introduced to a song in my youth and I was aspiring to find my place in the world as an artist. I remember a song that said calculate carefully and ponder it well and remember this when you do, “My two hands are mine to sell a major machine and they can stop them, too.” [applause] It is — [applause] it is the stopping of the machine that we seem to falter. For some reason we have not understood clearly what the blueprint was when we recall and think about what happened in the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement and the Women’s Movement in its early manifestations. The one thing that all those movements had in common was that they stopped the machine. And until we stop the machine, and in the way in which they — they hungryly pursue profit, until we tell them you will not turn another moment of profit until you deal with our spiritual bankruptcy as a nation , until you find a new codes of honor in which to deal with the world, we will not tolerate any longer your banks, your institutions, we’ll no longer tolerate your military interventions and your military impositions. [applause] and we are ready to put our bodies and our lives on the line to do that. It was Rosa Parks and what happened in Montgomery, Alabama, and the fact that people picketted and refused to let the machine, the profit punks easily. That we found our earliest victories and as we escalated our movement and we escalated our targets, we found more and more those who sat in the places of power troubled by the fact that we had the power to disrupt their machines and to stop them. And I think what we must do, as we pursue institutionnally an organization, we have goals that we have set for ourselves, is for us to collectively picket that time and that moment when not for a day, not for a moment, not for a march just to demonstrate that we exist, but to use our might and our powers strategically to make sure that nothing functions, nothing runs, nothing works until we find a way to end poverty and we find a way to end racism, until we come to the table and agree to do that. [applause] there, in fact, is my dilemma on what to say here this evening. Certainly we should all be applauded for what we do. They’re honorable people, we say. We care about our world and our planet. Everything we’ve done and the other honorees who are honored here this evening demonstrates that. But we have missed an important, strategic component. As I go around the world, which I do with great consistency, when I go to Somalia and to Rwanda and Kenya, when I go to the places that I go, when I go to the oppressive places in Eastern Europe and in Latin America and Central America, I’m aware how vast America’s villainy extends itself because I see in the faces of the wretched millions who make up poverty globally, who are languishing from H.I.V.-AIDS, hunger animal nutrition. Always I look at what causes this and as much as we can ascribe the most to nature and to some peculiarities of contrast. Nothing is clear to us as is the fact that what our military industrial complex, led by the United States of America and our lack I cans around the world do in the impression that most of the world experiences. How do we stop their machine? And there are times when we would speak about doing it violently. It was romantic to think that we could grab an M5 or M6 as we go up in the mountains somewhere and have a shoot-out and make our mark and to have the freedom. There was a time, perhaps, when that could be done. Certainly in Africa, the periods and the struggle against colonialism. All the up risings and the rebellions in Algeria and Vietnam and all those places were about. Soldiers and men and women taking to the streets and the villages of mountains, hamlets, abusing weaponry, the violence to meet violence. So now we come to know that that’s not possible. It doesn’t work. Certainly a gift that has been given us demonstrates for us that we have the most powerful weapon of all — and it’s at our disposal and it’s ours for the taking. It’s called NONVIOLENCE. [applause] and if we reach deep into the strategy of the Nonviolent Movement, as declared not only by Dr. King and Gandhi, but listening to the other instances about the 10th anniversary of South Africa. Had it not been for the application of Nonviolence, and what the people Of South Africa did, we would never have had the transformation that took place in their society when — without the firing of one shot, the evil empire unfolded and a New Democracy emerged to lead this great country into an — into a place of envy in the 21st Century. We have got to bring Corporate America to its knees. [applause] not just in defeat, but perhaps in prayer. To understand that we can come together, we can make a difference, a world that is filled with people who are nourished, a world that is filled with people who can read and write and debate and have exchange and dialogue. There is a place in which great profits can be earned. After all, people who can read and write, the people who are healthy are people who consume. In the consumption, we can find that we have great markets everywhere and that we would sell them food that was not grown by Folger’s and Maxwell House and grown by people who worry about organic earth and truth and the beauty of our mountains and rivers and what we put into our bodies. There sits the great profit that will be earned in the 21st century. And it is the forest, the institutions of capitalism that know that they can no longer continue to do business unless they do business with the poor. Unless they do business with those who sit disenfranchised n. A few days, I will go to the middle east. I go as a servant of the united nations where i have been working for the last 17 years and it’s perhaps the reason that lady in the Caribbean thinks I’m long time dead. [laughter] one of the reasons that most people don’t know whether I work or not is because the instruments of communication in America has tenaciously contained us on the airwaves, on the phone, on television. All those things which we have found necessary to enhance our voices and to be heard. Once they shut down on you, most people don’t know where you are. Unless they happen to read some momentary, brief report in a newspaper about something we may have done. I’m going to these places. I have to tell you that most of the places that I go to in the world are looking more like San Francisco and the Bay Area every day. They are people — [applause] in Germany, in France, in Ireland — England and Ireland and Poland, many places where I go whose voices are being heard mightily in their rebellion against the American Policy. Because the policies of oppression are speaking out and speaking out loudly. They’re transforming their government. They’re changing their leaders in Spain and where Brazil and Argentina and Nicaragua, in Venezuela, in many places and we must and can do the same here. We must just understand that the sacrifice we have yet to make is demanded of us. Somebody is going to have to, in cleaning up the air, talk about not driving anymore. Somebody, in trying to get a better price for good, is going to have to say that we just can’t keep running after the fast food market. Somebody is going to have to make a sacrifice. Somebody is going to have to put their body in front of the machine. Somebody is going to have to die. It’s the way things are. It’s the way things have been. And we, in our efforts to try to change and make a better world, will have to pay a price. Truth is — we must ask ourselves, are we willing to go all the way? Ask yourself if you are truly willing to die for what you believe and you might come up with an answer that will explain to you why we haven’t quite moved as far ahead as we should be moving. What are we prepared to give? What are we prepared to do? And should it be any less than those who have gone before us and who are willing to pay the price? I hope the next time that I come, there isn’t a Global Exchange. We might be looking at a different draft chart. A lot of people in the world are dying, children in particular. Nothing is certain about the lives that are lost among the Iraqis, among the Afghanistan people. Very little is said about the women and the children. We say it among ourselves, we sit as better informed. But we do not have an America in a major part of the world that understands what it is that we understand. And we have come to let the world know this. And the places that I will go, it will be important to let them know that we, in America, are made up of different people other than the ones they have come to know who carry guns and bombs and lies and deceit. That there are honorable people here making honorable efforts to make a difference in the world in which we live. And to that extent, I thank Global Exchange for being here and doing what it is you do and to give me an opportunity to battle on about the world in which we live. Thank you so very, very much. [applause]