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“Lift Every Voice”: Potential Senate Hopeful Cory Booker Praises Harry Belafonte’s Life of Activism

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Just hours after New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced he would not seek re-election, Newark Mayor Cory Booker introduced Harry Belafonte at an NAACP function in New York. While he hasn’t officially launched a campaign, Booker has filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission, a legal requirement to begin fundraising for the 2014 race. In his remarks, Booker praised Belafonte’s lifelong commitment to civil rights and justice. “We’re losing black boys at a rate that is alarming. How could we go from being a people in chains to now large percentages of our men are in shackles in prison in the land of the free?” Booker said. “You have a state like New Jersey where 65 percent of our prison population is black, when only 13 percent of our state is black. There is a problem, and Harry Belafonte wants to talk about it.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: As Black History Month continues, we spend the rest of the show with two prominent figures in the African-American community. On Friday night, the legendary musician, actor and activist Harry Belafonte received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, an annual award for the, quote, “highest or noblest achievement by an African American during the preceding year or years.” The award was presented to Belafonte by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the man who could become New Jersey’s next senator. Booker introduced Belafonte just hours after New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced he will not seek re-election in 2014. While he hasn’t officially launched a campaign, Mayor Booker filed a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission, a legal requirement to begin fundraising for the 2014 race. This is Mayor Cory Booker speaking Friday night at the NAACP awards ceremony.

MAYOR CORY BOOKER: You all sit down. I have this unfortunate experience. I feel it in my public life. I feel it with my dad. Any time I start thinking I’m somebody special, somebody comes on and reminds me. Now you had a Spingarn recipient named John Lewis, and Skip Gates calls me up and says, “I want you to be in my show, Finding Your Roots.” And I thought this was a wonderful thing. “And I’m going to partner you with somebody else.” I said, “That’s a wonderful thing.” And he said, “I want to partner you with John Lewis.” I said, “What you talkin’ about, Skip?” Because this is how the show began. John Lewis stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, stared down Alabama state troopers for the cause of justice and righteousness. He bled that bridge red with his own blood, carried unconscious back to the church. He is a champion of the civil rights movement. And then it switched to my segment: Cory Booker at age seven fell off his tricycle and skinned his knee. Bleeding his sidewalk red, carried to his mama screaming like a little girl. I cannot escape the weight of history. And you all give me this privilege. I should be standing here letting you all know the depth of gratitude I cannot express. There would be no me without the NAACP.

And so, today you all take on the role of my mama and daddy, by giving me this honor of giving an award that was not earned simply by action. This man is a testimony to the ideals for which this award was conceived. But being that I have now had a friendship with the man who we shall discuss, I need to talk about him and tell the truth. I first knew of this man, who caused, in my household, in the God-given sanctity of marriage—he came in my house—I knew this man as a little boy because he was the one that caused divisiveness between my mother and my father, because my dad begrudgingly liked him, but my mama had a love for him like she should not have felt as a married woman. And so, when they talked about him, my mom might leave the room, and he would turn to me and say to me very simply, “He’s a bad man, Cory. He’s a bad man. Harry Belafonte is a bad man.” And so, my initial understanding was as one who’s a person that threatened to break up my household. I’ve never seen my mom move like she moved to your music. A young boy shouldn’t have to see his mother act like that. That voodoo that you do? I know it was criminal when you were growing up. So it took me a little while to come around to understanding that he was not a threat to me and my household, because you don’t mess with a boy’s mama.

But I’ll tell you this. My father used to say something to me. When I was a little boy, I was growing up, and I was a high schooler, you know, I thought I was something special. I would become the president of my class in high school. I was a high school All-American football player, honor roll. My father would look at me walking around and said, “Boy, don’t you dare walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base.” And my father would look at me with his arms crossed and shake his head and said, “Boy, boy, boy, you need to understand that you drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty that you did not dig. You sit under the shade of trees that you did not plant or cultivate. You eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for you by your ancestors. Now you have a choice. You can sit back and just consume and get fat, dumb and happy, or you can be one of those people that metabolizes your blessings and let them burn as fuel in the continued fight for equality, for justice.”

And so, I stand here today with this deep sense of gratitude, because when my parents talked about drinking deeply from wells that were dug for me by others, this is a man who rolled up his sleeves when our people were parched and dug those wells. This was the man who, without even the understanding that there would be another generation that is me, was planting those trees, was preparing that table. You have to understand, I was not born until 1969. The battles and the challenges from the Freedom Rides, civil rights, all of this came before me. And when I came into the world, I didn’t have a road paved for me; I had the road paved. There were rest stops built. There were lights, guideposts, signs.

And so, I matured into understanding that Harry Belafonte was not just someone who was the music my parents played. He wasn’t just someone that my—they delighted to on the television, that God gave him those gifts, and he shared them abundantly, speaking a poetry and artistry that shook the very dust off of our souls, helped us to celebrate and rejoice in God, but that was not the totality of the man. The greatness of Harry Belafonte is that he never, ever mistook celebrity with significance. He never mistook popularity with purpose. He always understood that the gifts God give you are not yours alone, that the testimony of a man is how he shares those gifts with others not just when people are watching, not when it’s just comfortable and convenient, not to slip a little charity out of your pocket to an outstretched hand. True greatness comes when you take sacrifices and risks, when you are unpopular, when you are cast out, when you are castigated, when people throw bricks at you, but yet you do it anyway.

I stand here today proud and honored, humbled of heart, because what I have come to know, before I even met the man, was that this was the standard to which I must uphold if I was to prove worthy of the legacy I inherited. He never thought that leadership was about having everybody look at you and celebrate you and follow you, that true greatness is helping other people discover that they too are great. True leadership is helping other people understand that they have an obligation to lead.

But now let me get you to a point where my idol became my friend. I’ll never forget this. It was a dinner table around some mutual friends, and I had a chance to sit next to Harry Belafonte. And I found out that my dad’s suspicions were true. He is a very mischievous man. He has a playfulness of heart. He did not take himself too seriously. He was humble. You know, some folks, you feel like you have to go before them and genuflect and kiss the ring. He treated me like I was one of his. He treated me like my dad would treat me. And more than this, as I got to know his friendship, this elder statesman, I began to see that his testimony was: Don’t you dare put me out to pasture, because you have to understand, as long as there is breath in this body, as long as there are blood in these veins, as long as a god animates me with his spirit, I will be doing God’s work, and you better listen to me.

And let me tell you something, Harry Belafonte can talk. Thank God, he got something to say. And I have now heard stories that brought tears to my eyes. Tears to my eyes. As he talked to me about what it was to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement, to be around the table when you are faced with impossible decisions, to feel the pressure and the fear of death. I’ll never forget what he taught me that helped reaffirm in my heart the very definition of hope. As he told a story of Martin Luther King, himself despairing for a moment, catching himself in a moment of despair, worrying that we would achieve this integration, but what does it mean when you are integrating people into a house that is on fire with poverty and inequity? What does it mean? And he said King despaired about this American house at war in Vietnam with separations of wealth. And as he told me this story, I leaned forward, and then he said, “King caught himself and said, 'Well, I guess if the house is on fire, we're just going to have to go out there and be the fire department, too.’”

You see, this is the shift that made me fall in love with this man and make me have this want to be my great—one of my life’s great honors, to stand before you and present him with this historic medal. And I’ll tell you what it is. You see, Harry Belafonte has not stopped fighting to put out that fire. He is a—now, one who stands and calls to the conscience of this community that we have problems that are deep, we have challenges that are high. We have to understand that th urgency of our past is still here with us in the present. You see, my boys here from Newark, yet are not the—please. They’re still not the norm. We’re losing black boys at a rate that is alarming. How could we go from being a people in chains to now large percentages of our men are in shackles in prison in the land of the free? You have a state like New Jersey where 65 percent of our prison population is black, when only 13 percent of our state is black. There is a problem, and Harry Belafonte wants to talk about it.

How can we have a generation pass for—where Medgar, where Martin, where Malcolm died for us at gunfire, and now we live in communities where black-on-black crime is at rates we have never seen before, challenging the sanctity, the strength and the endurance of our communities? I’ve heard Harry Belafonte talk about this. How can we have a nation that for years now has been growing in wealth, but real wages have declined, so the few are getting wealthier and wealthier, and the many are getting poorer and poorer and poorer? Harry Belafonte is talking about this.

And so, I get delighted that he is my friend, because he is relentless in his joy of God’s given life that we have. It’s a celebration. But it is also an obligation to do as he does, to speak truth to power. It’s an obligation, the day we are weary, we cannot rest. It’s an obligation to wake up the echoes of our past and let them illuminate our presence. And this is what his life is a testimony to. It is a calling of our national anthem in the Negro community. This is what I hear Harry Belafonte say: “Lift every voice,” because, as King said, change will not roll in on the wheels of inevitability; it must be carried in on the backs of people willing to struggle and sacrifice. This is what Harry Belafonte is saying: “Lift every voice,” because, as Frederick Douglass says, in life, you don’t get everything you pay for, but you must pay for everything you get. “Lift every voice,” he’s saying to us, because, as a great artist and poet Langston Hughes says, there is still a dream in this land with its back against the wall, to save the dream for one, we must save the dream for all.

And so, I know we are giving this award in recognition of a lifetime of service, of sacrifice, of significance. But I tell you what charges me up is that this man is relentless in the present and purposeful in his future, because as long as he walks this earth, he will be calling on us to lift every voice and sing, with his beauty, with his eloquence, with his gifts, to sing as he sung to wake up a globe, to sing as he sung until the entire world resonates with the justice that he has been calling for since he was a young boy breaking up families like mine. Ladies and gentleman, I bring you my friend, my hero, I bring you the great Harry Belafonte.

AMY GOODMAN: Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaking Friday night at an NAACP event honoring Harry Belafonte. Booker spoke just hours after New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg announced he would not seek re-election, paving the way for a likely run by Mayor Booker, who has already set up an exploratory committee. When we come back, we go to the man of the hour, Harry Belafonte. Stay with us.

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