Belafonte closes MLK celebration with call for renewal of ‘radical thought’

Harry Belafonte, world-renowned singer and humanitarian, delivers the keynote address to conclude Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. Belafonte became a close personal friend to Dr. King after meeting him in the 1950’s.

Susan Du/Daily Senior Staffer

Harry Belafonte, world-renowned singer and humanitarian, delivers the keynote address to conclude Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. Belafonte became a close personal friend to Dr. King after meeting him in the 1950’s.

Joseph Diebold, Web Editor

Ending Northwestern’s two-week celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. in a keynote address Monday, legendary Calypso singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte bemoaned the death on college campuses of the “radical thought” that inspired King’s words and actions.

Belafonte, who befriended King during a visit to New York in the 1950s, gave his half-hour speech in front of a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. He remembered his interactions with King and their shared struggle in overcoming segregation.

Known as the “King of Calypso,” Belafonte helped popularize the Caribbean style of music in the 1950s, particularly with his hit songs “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” During the 1980s, he became a key voice in the opposition to apartheid policies in South Africa.

Although the event served as a celebration of King’s life, Belafonte said he remembered a striking cynicism in King’s words late in his life, when it became apparent that some of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement would remain hollow for many years.

“He said we have fought long and hard for integration,” Belafonte recalled of King, according to a University news release. “Almost every campaign we’ve set for ourselves we have won. But I’m afraid we’ve come to a place now where I am looking at this issue of integration, and I am having other thoughts … I really think we are integrating into a burning house.”

Belafonte also relayed his skepticism about the progress blacks have made since the Civil Rights Movement, expressing a desire for his speech to be interpreted by young people as a “call to action” to engage in social justice and avoid apathy.

“The edge of this crisis is the fact that we have come to a time where we have abandoned radical thought,” Belafonte said, according to the release.

Echoing the words of Napoleon Harris (Communication ’02), who delivered the Martin Luther King Day keynote the week before, Belafonte singled out gun violence as an issue on which both the black community and the population at large could no longer afford to remain silent.

Communication junior Kyra Jones attended Belafonte’s keynote. Jones said Belafonte’s call to action for young people was something students need to take to heart and his critique of “the lack of black voices in the fight against gun violence” despite the impact of guns on black communities hit home for her.

“I’m a huge fan of Harry Belafonte, so I was really excited that he was coming,” Jones said. “He definitely hit on some really important issues.”

Among those also in attendance was a group of students from Newport Elementary School in Wadsworth, Ill. The school’s principal, John Coburn, said in the release Belafonte’s ideas on the death of radical thought resonated with him.

“You have to be willing to think out of the box and not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in,” Coburn said. “Most importantly, you have to be willing to help others that are in need, who may not have a voice in society.”

Other speakers at Monday’s event included Medill Prof. Charles Whitaker, Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, University Chaplain Tim Stevens and Associated Student Government President Victor Shao, a Weinberg senior. The speeches were interspersed with musical performances by the Jazz Small Ensemble, the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and the Northwestern Community Ensemble.

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