Culture Magazine

Harry Bellefonte, I Had No Idea.... An American Icon

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
The New York Times has an article about Harry Bellefonte, who will turn 90 this coming March 1. I first knew of him as the singer behind "Banana boat Song (Day O)". I likely saw him on television and chances are his was the first version of “Hava Nageela" I heard. But I had little sense of the man behind the entertainer. Who did?
Thus it would be a long time before I knew that he bankrolled the early Civil Rights movement:
His good looks and light complexion made him palatable to white audiences, even as his background and politics were alien to them. When Dr. King asked to meet him, he said: “I threw my lot in with him completely, put a fortune behind the movement. Whatever money I had saved went for bonds and bail and rent, money for guys to get in their car and go wherever. I was Daddy Warbucks.” He helped organize the third march from Selma to Montgomery, recruiting entertainers like Joan Baez, Tony Bennett and Mahalia Jackson for a concert in Montgomery.
“Dr. King gave me the space to pursue my rebellion against the system,” he said. “They came after Dr. King with great vigor, and they didn’t get him. They came after me with great vigor; they didn’t get me. If they’d gotten me, I’m not quite sure what they’d have done with me.”
About America today:
“When I took up with Martin,” he said, “I really thought, two, at best three years, this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, and the Supreme Court just reversed the voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute — we have no movement. I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson. Maybe I don’t deserve a next one. Takes a lot of courage and a lot of power to step into the space and lead a holy war.”
As for Trump:
On this fall afternoon before the election, he said that the rise of Donald J. Trump alarmed him, but not as much as the passion and numbers of Mr. Trump’s supporters. “I’ve never known this country to be so” — he paused before saying the word — “racist as it is at this moment,” he said. “It’s amazing, after all that we have been through.”
Though he was encouraged by the energy in the Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements, he felt that both lacked an ideology to make real change. But he was hardest on people of his generation, who he said did not follow through on what they started.
“The rewards for what we achieved in the civil rights movement have more than corrupted the movement,” he said. “What happened in the black community, when they finally won the right to vote, they picked the ones who they knew, which is not to be unexpected. But the ones they knew were all the leaders. They knew Jesse.
“They knew Andy Young. They knew John Lewis. They pushed them right into the electoral political sea. Go run the state. Go run the government. Become a senator. I even encouraged them to do that as the next step to the civil rights movement. When you get the opportunity for that presence in government, let’s fill it with our best. Well, our best were guys in the movement. Once they went off into electoral politics, they abandoned the community. They abandoned that work. They abandoned that developmental process.”
As for the left:
“I think it’s an opportunity for the left to take this wake-up call. We need to be much more radical in what we do and how we do it than we have been up to now. The liberal community has compromised itself out of existence. The black community has been so passive in its response to this onslaught. Labor is strangely silent. All those reverends that were part of the progressive front are no longer heard from in any appreciative way. And out of that vacuum comes Trump.”

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