Celebrating a Beloved Elder: Activists Reflect on the Legacy of Harry Belafonte

by Joshua Brown
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Ten years ago when she was a young activist, Carmen Berkley from Seattle had the chance to meet Harry Belafonte. She works for a foundation promoting fairness and racial justice.

She traveled to Florida to join a group of young Black activists demonstrating at the State Capitol in Tallahassee over the death of Trayvon Martin. He was a teenage African-American boy shot and killed in 2012 by someone who lived in a gated community because he thought Trayvon looked suspicious. Berkley remembers it being an incredible moment when actor Harry Belafonte came to support the Capitol protestors.

The Vice President of the Inatai Foundation, Berkley said, “He inspired us with courage and showed that we are valuable and full of potential. There is nobody like Mr. B – he was very kind, generous and passionate about helping others get their freedom.”

Harry Belafonte, who sadly passed away aged 96, was famously a close friend and ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King. He followed his dreams in music and acting by taking part in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Over the last 50 years he has been an inspirational role model to many people; inspiring others to be activists, or even just encouraging them to use their voice to make a change in some way. He was dedicated to helping young people understand their rights and also reminding those whose voices weren’t heard anymore that they still had potential to speak out and represent themselves.

David J. Johns from the National Black Justice Coalition said, “A lot of people are standing in a long line of work he accomplished.” This group works to stop racism, homophobia, and unfairness against LGBT people. Right before Belafonte passed away, Johns was on a group talk about how important it is for all people to be equal and for democracy (where we get to choose our leaders) to stay protected.

He said that it’s really important to be brave and make changes. He talked about the people who have done this, like Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and Harry Belafonte.

When he passed away, many people paid tribute to Belafonte’s significance – President Joe Biden and ex-President Barack Obama spoke of him highly even though Belafonte had sometimes been tough on Obama for not doing enough for the poor; Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Viola Davis, and Questlove also honored his memory. Questlove said that Belafonte taught him to always think about what he could do to help others. That idea really stuck with him. In other words, if there is one thing we can learn from Belafonte it’s that we should all strive to do good and be helpful!

Cherrell Brown, a member of the Movement for Black Lives – a group of organisations that works together with BLM, remembers how Belafonte was an ongoing support for many young activists.

Brown said he was really supportive of young people standing up and being brave. He didn’t try to calm their feelings of anger or unhappiness. Instead, he praised their work and offered help. He showed how it is done as an experienced activist by setting a great example.

I saw a giant, influential person change their beliefs and ways of thinking. It showed me that no matter how old or smart you are, there’s always room to learn more and grow.

Harry Belafonte was a mentor and close ally to many famous people such as Danny Glover, Common and Usher, even if they disagreed with each other at times. Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy) noticed how Belafonte’s relationship changed when John F. Kennedy became President and appointed her father as Attorney General since he had worked for Senator McCarthy – an extreme anti-Communist.

Kennedy mentioned that though there were times of disagreements, their deep respect and love for each other grew over time. They stayed brave enough to speak truthfully about what they thought even if it was uncomfortable for them to do so.

Kerry Kennedy is the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, and Belafonte was a board member in this organization. He was actively involved with controlling the activities at Radan F. Kennedy until his death. In an interview, Kerry shared that it was impossible to even bring up lunch topics with Belafonte as he always managed to circle back all conversations towards civil rights and social justice issues.

She and Belafonte used to disagree a lot about her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy. He thought that her grandpa got his money by exploiting Black people, but she had to explain to him that this was not true because he had never owned slaves or gained financial advantage from slave labor.

She said that to make money in our country, some people need to take advantage of Black people. This can be seen everywhere like on airplanes, taxis and books. Then she talked about how what she was experiencing was really special — a lot of conversations, debates, honest reflections and finally realizations which only one person said it all to her with so much love that he was always right.

Aaron Morrison from New York wrote some of what we can read now.

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