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Singer, Songwriter, Actor, and Activist Harry Belafonte Goes to the Library

"A library is a place for people to come together, to learn about their world and explore new ideas," said Belafonte, "things I've tried to do my entire life."

Harry Belafonte (r) with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King at the March on Montgomery, 1965.(Credit: CJH/photographer unknown)

Harry Belafonte has been a household name across the United States and around much of the world for seventy years. He’s ninety now—and his legendary resonant voice is a bit harder to decipher sometimes. He walks with a cane, and more slowly. But his mind—quicksilver, curious, funny—is as swift as ever.

He’s been often worshipped and occasionally reviled for his music, his acting, his activism, his internationalism, and his commitment to justice. He’s been a mentor to generations of activists, an organizer and mobilizer, and a man of biting wit. He remained a sought-after speaker up until his recent announcement that he may stop giving public appearances.

His memoir, My Song, which came out a few years ago, gives a lively insider history of the civil rights movement. But even as a best-selling author, Harry was never primarily known, at least as far as I was aware, as a literary figure, a bibliophile. Until this year.

In February, New York’s 115th Street Public Library—in the very center of historic Harlem—was renamed in his honor. At the ceremony, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “Harry Belafonte has a storied career as both an artist and an advocate for New York City. His drive and initiative have had major impact in the realms of social justice, civil rights, culture, and activism, especially in the Harlem community. It is my honor and privilege to work with the New York Public Library to honor Mr. Belafonte and celebrate the life and accomplishment of this invaluable New Yorker.”

The 115th Street Library was built in 1908, one of the many lending libraries built by Andrew Carnegie. It became a center of Harlem community arts and organizing. Belafonte grew up in Harlem, and he embodies much of that dual commitment, to arts and organizing, that the library—now the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library—represents.

Last year, Belafonte was inducted into the Library Lions club—named for the iconic stone cats that have welcomed and put up with legions of climbing and clinging kids outside the entrance to the city's main public library at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue.


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Asked at the Library Lions gala how he felt being inducted, he returned to his Hollywood roots, comparing it to “being in a Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s such a mysterious society and when I was told I got it, I had to go, ‘Oh my God. What did I do? What did I do to earn it?’ I’m just very honored and touched that they offered [it to] me.”

Some years ago, I heard him speak at the Institute for Policy Studies’ annual human rights awards, Belafonte spoke of his own mentor, the great actor, singer and public intellectual Paul Robeson. He reminded us of what the leftwing political leader had taught him about how to be both artist and activist. He spoke of passing on what we learn—the lessons, the legacies—of those who have gone before.

And he never forgets those legacies. In a recent conversation about the Institute’s work with Reverend William Barber and others leading the new Poor People's Campaign, he jumped in with a story. “The last time I spoke to Martin,” he said, referring to Martin Luther King, Jr., “we were making plans for the [1968] Poor People's Campaign. Martin was getting ready to leave town and we were supposed to meet about it again when he came back—from Memphis.” Just days later Dr. King would be murdered in Memphis.

At the ceremony celebrating the renaming of the library, Mr. B, as he’s so often known, said, “On March 1, ninety years ago, I was born here. Harlem holds a very special place in my heart, and I’m so honored that I will now have a special place in Harlem. A library is a place for people to come together, to learn about their world and explore new ideas, things I’ve tried to do my entire life. I am hopeful that when people come to this place that will now bear my name, they will be inspired to learn about some of the pursuits I’ve held most dear—music, writing and social justice.”

With the combination of the Calypso and Caribbean music he made famous, his evocative (and occasionally hilarious) memoir, and his myriad of current organizations and constant political work, it’s pretty clear that Harry Belafonte's own version of that triple legacy is still on the rise.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Follow her on Twitter: @PhyllisBennis

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