Harry Belafonte Speaks at Duke

Belafonte talks about Martin Luther King's life and legacy

Harry Belafonte delivers the keynote address at the MLK commemoration Sunday in Duke Chapel.

Entertainer and human-rights activist Harry Belafonte spoke for an hour and a half at Duke Chapel Sunday, telling anecdotes about his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recounting his rise from poverty to worldwide success as a singer and urging the crowd to pursue King's dream by helping those in prison, victims of Hurricane Katrina and others in need.

"Dr. King lives. His spirit lives," Belafonte said to the standing-room-only crowd.

Belafonte was the keynote speaker in Duke's three-day celebration of the King holiday, which continues today (Monday) with a series of "Freedom School" discussions on contemporary social issues and a staged reading of the play "Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark," written by Duke literature professor Ariel Dorfman. It began Friday with a talk by film director Charles Stone III.

Belafonte also addressed the recent controversy over his recent trip to Venezuela, during which he criticized President Bush.

"I go where things are happening and see for myself," he said. "Such an experience recently has unfolded a new set of problems."

He said he went to Venezuela after President Hugo Chavez's offer of help after Hurricane Katrina was rebuffed by the Bush administration.

"Our people called out in their pain and suffering and fear and our government did not respond," Belafonte said. "When the Venezuelan government stepped into this hollow moment...our president arrogantly dismissed it."

He was harsh in his criticism of President Bush, saying, "Killing is our easiest tool. When you look at the president who has led us into a dishonorable war that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people, many our own sons and daughters, I ask myself what Dr. King would have asked...

"It is an act that has driven fear and terror into the hearts of the American people. What is the essential difference in quality of our humanity for those who would do the cruel and tragic deed of flying an airplane into a building and killing 3,000 innocent Americans and those who would lie and lead the nation into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands?

"Excuse me, fellow citizens, if the line for me becomes a little blurred."

Belafonte's speech was punctuated by applause and the occasional "Hallelujah!" as he told stories from his own life and also urged the crowd to action.

Belafonte was the son of a Jamaican immigrant to New York, and he said his mother quickly encountered limits to her success in America. After enlisting in the Navy, he returned to find that service in the fight against Hitler had not altered his status as a black man in America. After that, he said, "I read everything, I listened to everyone and gleaned from everyone anything that I could apply. At this moment...Martin Luther King walked into my life."

After Belafonte found success as a singer -- his "Calypso" album was the first to sell a million copies -- King sought out Belafonte's support.

Belafonte said they met for what was supposed to be a 40-minute conversation and ending up talking for five hours in a church basement. King was 24 and Belafonte was 26.

"I came away knowing the course of my life had been set. I knew whom I was to serve," he said. "I understood his humanity. We shared the journey, up to and including the day of his death."

Belafonte -- whom King once described as a "tactical weapon" in the fight for Civil Rights -- said his fame also carried a responsibility. "If we are given that gift, the question is, what do we do with it. I had role models and mentors that fulfilled that question of what I should do with my life."

As the struggle continued, King decided to expand the efforts to include economic justice and the "redistribution of wealth and resources" with the Poor People's Campaign. That's what precipitated the decision to go to Memphis to support striking garbage workers, where he was assassinated.

"He dared to touch the place which is America's greatest nerve center," Belafonte said. America needs to be "the most powerful and the most wealthy, whatever the cost."

Those who seek to continue King's work should work to end the continuing injustices in our nation, Belafonte said. The large -- and largely African American -- prison population, poor schools and the thousands of poor, African American people displaced by Katrina are all issues Americans need to face, he said. He criticized the government for holding people without charging them with a crime, and he said he was horrified to see a 5-year-old African American girl handcuffed by police for being unruly in kindergarten.

"I say to myself, 'What would Dr. King say at a time like this?'"

The work is not easy, Belafonte said: King was called "a Communist, a rabble-rouser, a discontent" but "he stayed the course," Belafonte said. Nelson Mandela also was labeled "a terrorist and a Communist and a man who was a danger to democracy," he said.

"Many have been called many names," he said.

"When I was born, I was colored. Soon after, I became Negro. Not long after that, I was black. Most recently I was African American. It seems we're on a roll here," he said. "But I am, first and foremost, in search of freedom."

A cancer survivor soon to turn 79, Belafonte said that if he could choose his epitaph, it would be, "Harry Belafonte, Patriot."