Harry Belafonte just turned 80. The "King of Calypso" was the first person to have a million-selling album, the first African American to win an Emmy and is perhaps the most recognizable entertainer in the world. Last Saturday, I attended his birthday party at a restaurant adjoining the New York Public Library.
The setting seemed very appropriate, as Belafonte himself is a living library of not only the civil rights movement, but of liberation struggles around the world. In 1944, just before shipping out as a U.S. Navy sailor in World War II, he was banned from the Copacabana nightclub in New York. Ten years later, he headlined there. He knew Rosa Parks, Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt. He corresponded with Nelson Mandela in prison, when the U.S. government considered the South African leader a terrorist.
Belafonte was a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke daily with King. The FBI was listening. Taylor Branch, the award-winning author of a trilogy of books on King, was at Harry's party. Belafonte describes how Branch's final book in the trilogy, "At Canaan's Edge," uncovered extensive FBI wiretaps of their conversations.
For fighting for the right to vote and to end segregation, Belafonte says: "We were looked upon as unpatriotic; we were looked upon as people who were insurgents, that we were doing things to betray our nation and the tranquility of our citizens. That engaged the FBI. Everything we talked about was tapped." The FBI even came to his house, when he was away, and frightened his wife and children.
He tells me: "The essential difference between then and now is that no previous regime tried to subvert the Constitution. They may have done illegal acts. They may have gone outside the law to do these, but they did them clandestinely. No one stepped to the table as arrogantly as George W. Bush and his friends have done and said, 'We legally want to suspend the rights of citizens, the right to surveil, the right to read your mail, the right to arrest you without charge.' " His criticism is not limited to Bush (whom he called, while visiting President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, "the greatest terrorist in the world").
President Clinton crashed Belafonte's birthday party, which was taking place as the Democratic presidential contenders battled for the African American vote. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in Selma, Ala., for the 42nd anniversary of the famous voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
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In his remarks, Clinton toasted Harry: "I was inspired by your politics more than you can ever know. Every time I ever saw you after I became president, I thought that my conscience was being graded, and I was getting less than an A. And every president should feel that way about somebody as good as you."
I asked Harry how he felt about Clinton showing up: "I'm very flattered, OK, but I'm mindful of all the things that need to be done." In his succinct reply, a lifetime of struggle remembered, a keen-edged skepticism. "He knows what I think. He said I didn't give him an A." I then asked him about both the Clintons and Obama going to Selma.
"We are hearing platitudes, not platforms. What do they plan to do for people of color, Mexicans, for people who are imprisoned, black youth? What are their plans for the Katrinas of America?"
In 1965, Belafonte was on the original Selma march with King. Just before they reached Montgomery, St. Jude's Catholic Church offered its grounds to the thousands of marchers. Belafonte called in artists from around the country. Tony Bennett came, as did Pete Seeger (both were at Harry's birthday party), Sammy Davis Jr., Mike Nichols, the conductor Leonard Bernstein, Odetta and Joan Baez. In the rain, they built their stage in the mud with donated caskets from local mortuaries.
The stakes were incredibly high. People were shot and killed; people were beaten. Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit homemaker, was fatally shot by Klansmen while driving marchers back to Selma. Weeks before, police shot a man named Jimmie Lee Jackson, who later died. Despite all that, Belafonte says the stakes are higher today.
Like the two stone lions that guard the New York Public Library, Harry Belafonte -- fierce, fearless and focused -- protects he soul of struggle. Even as he enters his ninth decade, this lion does not sleep tonight.