February 2, 2004

Belafonte extols rewards of activism

By Michael Terrazas

For last week's Kenneth Cole Leadership Forum, the program's namesake and benefactor again dipped into his celebrity Rolodex–singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte was this year's keynote speaker–and those who attended the kickoff event Wednesday night received perhaps the most austere challenge in the forum's three-year history.

Belafonte, who appeared on the Glenn Auditorium stage Jan. 28 with local Fox 5 news anchor Amanda Davis, had some harsh criticisms for the nation he helped defend in World War II, but the legendary performer also expressed hope for the future and a belief that America, "for all its villainy and all its oppression, is still one of the best laboratories the world has ever known to put us on the road [to social justice]."

Themed "Many Faces in One Place: Building the Diverse Community," this year's program could not have been more appropriate for Emory, which lately has experienced its own challenges in the practice of community. Belafonte (who as keynote speaker followed actor and director Robert Redford last year and former New York governor Mario Cuomo in 2002) spoke eloquently about a life that ascended from poverty in Harlem to dizzying heights of international fame but refused to surrender to the self-centeredness that so often accompanies such celebrity. And the person responsible for it all? Belafonte's mother.

"My mother set a standard that propelled me into life with a constant sense that I could not spend one day not in battle with oppression," said Belafonte of the mother who emigrated from Jamaica to Harlem and raised her family "for all intents and purposes as a single mother." Asked what led him into activism, he replied, "Poverty. I was born in it. I grew up in it. Poverty was my mother's midwife."

Born in 1927, Belafonte dropped out of school in 1944 and joined the U.S. Navy, serving both in the Pacific and European theaters of World War II. After the war he returned to New York and fell in love with the performing arts. Belafonte built a career in music and acting that is virtually unrivaled; his third album, 1955's Calypso, was the first ever to sell a million copies, and he earned a Tony Award for his first appearance on Broadway in John Murray Anderson's Almanac.

But despite his tremendous success, Belafonte resisted the temptations of self-gratification and dedicated an equal part of his life to social activism. In 1960 President John F. Kennedy appointed him cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, and Bela-fonte was intimately involved in the civil rights struggles of that decade, lending his fame to the battles Martin Luther King Jr. fought in places like Selma and Birmingham. When King was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte was named one of three executors of the estate.

Through his own foundation Belafonte has helped African students seeking education in the United States; in 1987 he was appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, only the second American to hold the title; and he has won awards too numerous to name for his activism, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize and the Nelson Mandela Courage Award.

"I'm not sure how much of it is my own doing, but I was afforded the opportunity to spend a life in social and political activism and serve causes I deeply believe have enhanced humanity," Belafonte told his Glenn audience. "When people think of activism, they always think some sacrifice is involved, but I've always considered it a privilege and an opportunity."

Belafonte challenged his listeners to fight the affliction he believes is singularly responsible for nearly all the world's ills: greed. And he said the nation he loves and calls home is perhaps the most affected.

"We are all deeply touched by the virus of greed," he said. "If we were not so touched, more evidence of a healthier world would be in play. There is a hedonistic core to us; we have capitulated morally to any sense of right and justice in the name of the acquisition of profit."

Belafonte cited people like King, like Mahatma Gandhi, like Nelson Mandela, as "clear examples of what the human family can achieve." He advocated for universal education and health care, and he hailed the Cole Forum as "a platform that is very strategic and important to the future."

Belafonte criticized the United States' current penchant for military unilateralism, predicting such "armies and conquest and imperial control will lead us to a darker day in our history."

In a moment that drew muffled laughter from the audience, Davis asked the performer what sounded like a question of who he endorses in this year's presidential race. Belafonte paused before replying, "I have yet to live under a president I totally liked."

"The people I trust most are the citizens of this nation," he continued. "They elude me from time to time--they are suspicious creatures--but in the final analysis it is them I trust most."

President Jim Wagner opened the evening by praising the Cole Forum and reciting the accomplishments of some of its fellows. He then introduced Kenneth Cole, a 1976 graduate of Emory College and current University trustee, who in turn introduced Belafonte.

"Harry Belafonte spent a career turning silence into music; he's been an incessant advocate for fairness, dignity and civility," Cole said. "And he's so dam-, excuse me, darn stylish, and I didn't have anything to do with that. It's a terrible thing."

Following Belafonte's keynote address, the Cole Forum continued on Jan. 29 with a full day of panel discussions devoted to measuring and building community. Other featured speakers included John McKnight, professor of public policy at North-western University, and Eddie Glaude Jr., associate professor of religion at Princeton University.