January 30, 2006
We spend the hour with the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian,
Harry Belafonte. He joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about why
he recently called President Bush "the world's greatest terrorist;"
racism and Hurricane Katrina; Martin Luther King and the civil rights
movement and wars of imperialism and resistance.
The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on
the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. After serving in World War II, he
returned to New York and began a successful acting and singing career.
Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Belafonte became deeply
involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was close friends with the
Rev. Martin Luther King. In the 1980's he helped initiate the "We Are
the World" single which helped raise millions of dollars in aid to
Africa. He also hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on
his triumphant visit to the United States. Belafonte has been a
longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the
embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global
oppression. [includes rush transcript]
Today we are joined by the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte.
The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the
streets of Harlem and Jamaica. At the age of 17, he dropped out of high
school to enlist in the Navy. After serving in World War II, he
returned to New York and began a successful acting and singing career.
In the 1950s he spearheaded the Calypso craze with a string of hits. He
is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song," with its
signature lyric "Day-O." His third album, titled "Calypso", became the
first in history to sell over one million copies. He was also the first
African-American to win an Emmy, with his solo TV special "Tonight with
Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Harry Belafonte
became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, he met
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the two quickly became friends.
He sent money to bail King out of the Birmingham City Jail and
raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He
financed the Freedom Rides, and supported voter-registration drives and
helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
In the 1980"s he helped initiate the star-studded "We Are the World"
single, which raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in
Ethiopia, calling global attention to the humanitarian crises in
A longtime anti-apartheid activist, Belafonte hosted former South
African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United
States. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling
for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war
and global oppression. Earlier this month, he led a delegation of
activists, including actor Danny Glover and professor Cornel West, to
Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez. Belafonte spoke at a
rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.
Belfonte was standing next to Chavez when he made
those comments. And he didn't let up. Belafonte also recently spoke in
commemoration of Martin Lurther King Day at Duke University where he
said, "Bush has led us into a dishonorable war that has caused the
deaths of tens of thousands of people...What is the difference between
that terrorist and other terrorists?" And in a speech to the annual
meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference days later he said,
"We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland
Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended."
- Harry Belafonte, speaking in Venezuela, January 2006.
Harry Belafonte joins us in our firehouse studio today for the hour.
- Harry Belafonte, musician, actor and activist.
AMY GOODMAN: Belafonte spoke at rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.
HARRY BELAFONTE: No matter what the greatest tyrant
in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush,
says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions
of the American people – millions – support your revolution, support
your ideas, and yes, expressing our solidarity with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte was standing next to President
Chavez when he made those comments, and he didn't let up. When he came
back to this country, he spoke in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther
King at Duke University, where Belafonte said, quote, "Bush has led us
into a dishonorable war that's caused the deaths of tens of thousands
of people. What's the difference between that terrorist and other
terrorists?" In a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters
Members Conference days later, he said, quote, "We've come to this dark
time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where
citizens are having their rights suspended." Harry Belafonte joins us
today in our Firehouse studio for the hour. Welcome to Democracy Now!
HARRY BELAFONTE: It's nice to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, let's
go back for a moment to Venezuela and your comments there, for which
you got a lot of attention in the United States. Talk about your views
of President Bush.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When Katrina took place, there was a
great sense of tragic loss for many Americans who saw that terrible
tragedy. What we had not anticipated was that our government would have
been so negligent and so unresponsive to the plight of hundreds of
thousands of people in the region. And in a dilemma that we all face as
to what we could do as private citizens to help the folks that were
caught in that tragedy, we began to listen to voices that were outside
the boundaries of government, the United States government. We listened
to voices that came from as far away as Denmark, who offered to send
goods and services in emergency, and we also heard the voices of people
from Venezuela through their leader, Hugo Chavez, who said that 'In
this moment of your great tragedy, we, the Venezuelan people, extend
all the resources we can summon up to help the plight of those people
caught in the Gulf region.
The United States very abruptly and very arrogantly rejected
that offer, while in its stead, we did nothing to bring immediate
relief. And as a matter of fact, I must tell you, we're still quite
delinquent in what the peoples of that region need, because we still
failed to fully mobilize and meet the needs of the people, particularly
in New Orleans, but other places within that region.
I and many other private citizens decided that we would listen
very carefully to what people outside of the government were saying,
because there was no immediate sense of relief and response to what we
were experiencing, the people in Katrina. And so, like others, I went
with a delegation of 15 people, at the invitation of the Venezuelan
government, to come and to meet with President Chavez and members of
his cabinet to talk about what we could do to help American people
caught in this tragedy.
While there, we were given the right and the permission and
the opportunity to visit barrios, villages, going into the schools,
going into the prisons of Venezuela. We went into the academic
institutions, in which Cornel West spoke. Tavis Smiley went to TeleSUR
and other television communications development taking place, to
examine, to see what was happening to, quote-unquote, "freedom of the
press." As we’ve said, freedom of the press in Venezuela is vigorously
denied. There is no opposition noise. Yet it's interesting to note that
nothing in Venezuela has been nationalized. There's still a very
vigorous private sector, albeit that it's a little disgruntled that it
is not able to sustain the rather one-sided agreement that they drew
with that government a long time ago in contracts that were drawn for
oil and other resources.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet with the opposition, as well?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. We met with the opposition, as a
matter of fact, the leader of the opposition. And for a little over two
hours, we had an exchange. I asked him questions that I thought were
appropriate about what he felt about Chavez and the program, why did he
take an opposition position. And he expressed his thoughts on the way
things were going. We found that there were some contradictions to what
he said, but that was not my purpose.
I wasn't going to be -- I didn't go down to be an
investigative reporter. I went down to ascertain facts and to make sure
that if we got responses from the Venezuelan government that would help
the plight of poor people in America, not just those caught in Katrina,
but, as you well know, already the South Bronx has received aid, oil at
very favorable prices for people who were not given any to be able to
face this winter that we're experiencing now, and it is expected that
will become more severe. Massachusetts received oil. They just recently
negotiated with Vermont and Maine and other places, about not only oil,
but what other goods and services can the Venezuelan government bring
to take up the slack for what the United States says it has no
resources to fill.
It is quite curious that we can find billions and billions of
dollars to sustain an illegal and immoral war in the Middle East,
invading a country that did not provoke us and moving into this this
conflict unconstitutionally, even though it had the approval of the
Congress. Even the Congress violated the statutes of the Constitution.
We were not invaded. There was no threat of an enemy. We unilaterally
walked into a country that had no threat to this country, and we
invaded it. That's against the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: You call President Bush a terrorist?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I call President Bush a terrorist. I
call those around him terrorists, as well: Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld,
Gonzales in the Justice Department, and certainly Cheney. I think all
of these men sit -- and women -- sit in the midst of an enormous
conspiracy that has been unraveling America for the last eight years --
six years. It is tragic that the dubious way in which this president
acquired power should have begun to unravel the Constitution and the
peoples of this country.
Yes, I say that there are people in this country who live in
terror. Poverty is terror. Having your Social Security threatened is
terror. Having your livelihood as an elderly person slowly disappearing
with no replenishment is terror. Students who are dropping out of
school because there are no resources to keep us in school is terror.
You find people in the streets, watching drugs permeate our communities
and destroy our young, it's a life of terror. And men who sit in charge
of that distribution mechanism, which can help the American people
overcome these problems and refuse to do so, while giving the rich more
money than they've ever dreamt of having, while turning around our
institutions and redirecting resources from those who are truly in need
to those who are already generously endowed, if not hedonistically so,
it's a great tradgedy.
And I think most important is that we have words that attempt
to give us moral cleansing, so that somehow we hold those responsible
for crashing into the Twin Towers and killing over 2,000 Americans
citizens in cold blood, which is an act of terrorism -- people who have
done that should be sought out and brought to justice; there's no
question of that -- but when we do what we have done, illegal war,
going into the Middle East, bombing at will, and then hundreds of
thousands of people get caught, who are either maimed or over 100,000
have already been killed, who are innocent men, women and children, and
we chalk that off to a thing called "collateral damage," as if somehow
that murderous thing that we're doing so cruelly and so inhumanely has
no judgment before world opinion, that we are somehow righteous and
above criticism and above the law. That is unacceptable. And that's
what I speak out against.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Harry Belafonte. When we
come back, I want to ask him about the latest controversy over spying
on American citizens. He's had his own experience with that. Long-time
friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, many, many hundreds of conversations
with King on the phone. What about his phone calls at that time? Talk
to him about the F.B.I. and surveillance.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to legendary singer, musician,
activist, Harry Belafonte. He's in our Firehouse studio. Harry, I
wanted to ask you about the comments you made about former Secretary of
State Colin Powell. This is what you said about him during a radio
interview in Los Angeles in October 2002.
HARRY BELAFONTE: There's an old saying in the days
of slavery, there are those slaves who lived on the plantation, and
there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege
of living in the house if you served the master to exactly the way the
master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin
Powell is permitted to come into the house of the master, as long as he
will serve the master according to the master's dictates. Now, when
Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master
wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Harry Belafonte speaking on KFMB AM in Los Angeles. Your thoughts today about that, about Colin Powell?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think I’m mostly saddened by the fact
that now that Colin Powell is no longer in office and enjoys the
privileges of private citizenship, that even in this aftermath, he is
still not repentant. And I’m not asking him to repent in some
supercilious commanding way. What I’m looking at is his soul, and I’m
looking at redemption from past grievances and transgressions.
He lied to the American people, as did his president, before
the United Nations. That led us into this war. We were told about
weapons of mass destruction -- there aren't any -- and all the things
that you and I’m sure your listeners already know. And I would imagine
that now that he's been removed from that responsibility, that he would
have taken a position that maybe would have said to us more clearly and
more humanely what his difficulties and problems were while he was in
service and that he now choose to look at all of this from another
perspective, especially in the wake of all that has been revealed by
intelligence reports that have been released, by the debate that we've
been having on what happened and how we did it, and what all the
subterfuges were and what has come out from the intelligence
communities in other nations around the world. But no, there has not
been such -- he still maintains that what he did was just and correct.
I find that sad.
I mean, I remember John Kennedy, when he went into Cuba and
understood very quickly how ill-advised that was, that he had the
courage and the strength to say, I made a mistake, and that I’m sorry
that I listened to counsel that misled me, and that I accept all
responsibility for this act, and that I will not do that again. And he
apologized not only to the American people, but to the world at large,
and stepped forward. For that, he was greatly admired.
I don't think that we are a species or a people that can exist
without making mistakes somewhere along the line. Some make mistakes
that are greater than others. But I do believe that we should have the
courage and the ability to look at something that we did, even if in
the first instance we believed it, when in the wake of the aftermath
and the truth, you find out that that was not the case, to then say,
'Let me go back and examine what led me to this conclusion. What gods
was I serving? What masters was I serving? What was it all about?’ and
then try to be more instructive to people who will listen to you.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, speaking about people
listening to you, I wanted to ask you about the surveillance scandal,
President Bush wiretapping Americans without court warrant. This isn't
the first time, of course, and you were a victim of it. Can you, in
talking about that, also talk about your relationship with Dr. Martin
Luther King, how you met, the conversations you had, and then recently
learning about these wiretaps?
HARRY BELAFONTE: When I was discharged from the United
States Navy, having served almost two years during the Second World
War, I came back, like millions of us did, with an expectation that
those principles for which we fought would be fully revealed and
embraced by the American government and the American people -- the war
was about democracy, the war was about ending white supremacy, the war
was about ending colonialism -- only to discover that the Allies, the
British, the French, the Dutch and the Americans, all who were the
forefront of the democratic charge, having victoriously won that war,
did not upon the celebration of victory do anything but go back to
business as usual.
Segregation was more vigorously enforced in this country. Many
citizens in this country did not have the right to vote. Opportunities
were not on an equal level playing field. The peoples of Asia and
Africa and the colonial Caribbean were not experiencing any relief from
their colonial degradation. And many of us were very, very upset and
very angry with the fact that here was democracy, having been fought
for so vigorously, not reaching out to those of us who were the victims
of the absence of democracy. And in that context, rather than submit,
we joined and organized and did everything we could to have the
principles of democracy in our Constitution upheld. That meant we went
after voting, we went after ending the segregation laws. We did
For that act, 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, when nothing
could have been further from the truth. That engaged the F.B.I. That
engaged the House on American Activities Committee. Many of our leaders
were hounded and denied their livelihood. Their passports were taken
away. So vigorous was that campaign of oppression that even American
citizens committed suicide, and not by ones or twos, but by large
numbers. It was a cruel, oppressive period. But we stayed the course,
many of us. We resisted. And ultimately, we prevailed.
On the threshold of that experience came the Civil Rights
Movement. As a matter of fact, we were the forerunners to the movement.
We energized the spirit and people to make America live up to its code,
live up to its great promise. In that context, the Civil Rights
Movement began to do the same things that those before the movement did
to vigorously pursue the unjust laws of this country and to turn them
J. Edgar Hoover and others in government began to put
surveillance on the citizens. I have no idea how many court permissions
were given to have our wires tapped, but nevertheless, we were.
Everything we talked about were tapped. As a matter of fact, as an
artist, while I was away, the innocence of my family and my children
were invaded one evening by the F.B.I. agents who came while I was
away, knocked at the door. My wife was very startled at the experience,
and when she queried them as to why they were there, they said they had
come to investigate me, because they felt that I was doing acts of
treason towards our country.
AMY GOODMAN: When was this?
HARRY BELAFONTE: This was 1950, '51, '52, around that
period. Although we suspected that we were being surveilled, we didn't
know the extent of it until reports began to be revealed and came out
in a number of books that were written. Perhaps the most detailed and
one of the best-researched was a writer by the name of Taylor Branch,
who did a trilogy called Parting the Waters and then Pillar of Fire, and the most recent, Canaan's Edge. In Canaan’s Edge,
much of his research was drawn from wiretaps, from surveillances, from
conversations taped in the White House and the Justice Department and
through the F.B.I.
These revelations should say to the American people: such a
mechanism has been in place for a very, very long time. The essential
difference between then and now, in the face of the same horror, 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.
You do not have the right to counsel if we so decide, and you can stay
in prison as long as we want you to, until we're satisfied that we have
reached the objectives that we want, despite the Constitution.’
I think that every person in the United States of America
should be up in arms, should be up in rebellion against the reality
that we face, that it is that fact that made me say that I think and I
feel that we are at the dawnings of a new Gestapo state here in the
United States, through the security -- Securities Commission and
through the Homeland Security, as well – National Security Agency. All
of these different agencies, all of these different bureaucracies have
their own special assignments, and then they come – and when you look
at the collective, America is playing out a horror theme. The fact that
we're a joyous nation, when you see sports and you see so much light,
frothy, mindless entertainment bombarding you every day and so much
disinformation coming your way, is enough to make any citizen mentally,
as well as socially, blurred to truth.
But the fact is that it exists, and it exists very intensely
in our midst. There are citizens at this moment who are being arrested,
who are not being told why they're arrested. Some have been spirited
out of this country to faraway places to be imprisoned and tortured.
These are realities, and the American people had best wake up, because
as one priest once said, or I think it was a protestant minister in
Germany, said, 'When they came for the communists, I didn't know any.
When they came for the Jews, I didn't know any. When they came for the
labor movements, I didn't know any. And then when they came for me, no
one was left.’ I don't think we can distance ourselves from what's
going on in America. And as Roosevelt said, that 'When our government
is being subverted, our Constitution is being undermined by those who
sit in the seat of government and power, it is the right of citizens
and the responsibility of citizens to raise their voice against this
intrusion and this collapse and should speak out against it and, in
fact, change the government; and those who do not do that, should be
charged with patriotic treason.’
AMY GOODMAN: How do you think people should do that?
HARRY BELAFONTE: By organizing, by coming together, by
meeting, and if those sources of information that come your way blur,
and all have the same voice, it's very easy to find Democracy Now! It's
very easy to go to the internet. It's very easy to go to local meetings
that are being held all over this country, on university campuses, in
communities. I work very vigorously with groups in California, in South
Central, up in Northern California. I go into the prisons of America.
This nation is humming with people who are in discussion about what's
happening to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk to people who are afraid,
afraid of being blacklisted or whitelisted, if you will, from your own
experience? What did that mean? I mean, here you were the Calypso King.
You were the first one to sell a million albums, way ahead of Frank
Sinatra, all of them, but you were willing to risk it all. And what did
it mean? What did it mean to be blacklisted in this country?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Actually, upon hindsight, it meant
that I was doing something right, and regardless of any doubts that I
may have had in the beginning, in wondering where this was all going,
I've come to find that men like Paul Robeson and women like Eleanor
Roosevelt and Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and so many noble
warriors that were in the Civil Rights Movement, also those noble
people in Africa, many who waged a vigorous resistance to colonialism,
foremost would be Nelson Mandela, when our correspondence started while
he was in prison and then ultimately to see the A.N.C. come about and
bring a transition to a rather oppressive experience, one of the most
in that century, and to do so nonviolently, to transform this
government without firing one shot, all of these people stand as
torches to my – to the validation of what it was that we did, as the
principle, as the clear voice of what people have to do. And I would
say to my colleagues, 'If it is the economics of your life, when will
you have enough? And at what price do you sell your soul when you know
what the truth is and refuse to embrace it at the price of losing our
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Harry Belafonte, and
we'll come back with him and talk more about his support of Nelson
Mandela and the A.N.C., when the African National Congress was on the
list of terrorist organizations in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Harry Belafonte, and he joins us in
our studio today, as we talk about the politics of today and talk about
it in the context of history. When you say you started writing to
Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned -- for almost three decades he
was imprisoned -- where was this country? And how dangerous was this to
HARRY BELAFONTE: Writing to Nelson Mandela, as such,
was not an act that endangered me, I don't think. It was certainly an
act that was very much in tandem with the way I was behaving with a lot
of people in the world who were having their human rights violated. I
had done quite a lot of work in Africa. I was a cultural advisor to the
Peace Corps, appointed by John Kennedy. I helped shape some of the
early policies and how the Corps did its business in faraway countries.
And long before most of the African countries had come to independence,
I was there, talking to potential heads of state. I went to Kenya with
Thurgood Marshall at the celebration of their independence, the only
American artist or global artist to be so invited. And I worked with
Tom Mboya before Kenya got its independence to bring African students
to this country by the hundreds, along with Jackie Robinson and others
who foot the bill.
We did a lot of work in Africa. I knew Julius Nyerere and
Kenneth Kaunda, and then eventually Seku Ture, and had a long
relationship to the continent. And so, therefore, writing Nelson
Mandela would not have been an unusual thing for me to do, except that
we knew he was incarcerated, charged with being a terrorist and all
those things that we charged him with. And then I thought that in
prison he should be at least -- we should make an attempt to reach him
and to help with his spirits. My letters were delivered through his
attorney, because all of his mail was read, and some of the letters got
to him in a clandestine way.
I don't think any of us expected to see him alive. And at the
end of 27 1/2 years, because I continued to work with the A.N.C., I had
continued to work with the issues of apartheid and the sanctions, I had
brought to this country great African artists, Miriam Makeba, Hugh
Masekela, who were hugely successful, and they delighted American
audiences. And those artists spoke to the plight of the South Africans.
And behind their calling, behind their power, and in the midst of my
own, we did a lot to put the light on the darkness of what was going on
in South Africa. And when Nelson Mandela was finally released from
prison, the A.N.C. asked me to come to London to meet with Oliver
Tambo, because they wanted me to personally handle all of his events
when he came to the country, to help pick his agenda, what were the
best targets, who were the people that he should most reach out to.
AMY GOODMAN: And this was Nelson Mandela?
HARRY BELAFONTE: This was Nelson Mandela. And all the
events were looked at. We negotiated -- we discussed clearly where we
thought he should be. George Bush's father, the original President
Bush, was in office then. I had to meet with his special services,
securities, to talk about Nelson Mandela's safety in the country. David
Dinkins was the mayor. I had to negotiate with him in the city -- a
host of things that were done, in order to be able to secure his
presence in this country and to let his voice be heard. So that was not
unusual for me.
I had talked with other heads of state, Michael Manley from
Jamaica, a place in which I grew up, where my roots stood. I worked
very hard with Michael Manley for the Caribbean nations in the region,
and I spent a great deal of time there, working socially and
politically. So that's an open page. There was nothing clandestine
about it. It's hard to be a superstar and hidden.
AMY GOODMAN: But early on, you were taking on corporate America and the U.S. government by supporting the A.N.C.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. I still take on corporate America and the U.S. government.
AMY GOODMAN: What about in Haiti? President Aristide is
now in South Africa, ousted from Haiti. In February 29, 2004, he was
taken out of the country in a U.S. plane, out of his own country, sent
to the Central African Republic. And he said, he was the victim of a
kidnapping in the service of a coup d'etat backed by the United States.
HARRY BELAFONTE: My response is that I believe his
story to be so. I believe that is exactly what happened. I’ve talked to
many people who have far more information than I do, because I don't
live within the womb of government, but those who do have attested to
the fact that what took place historically, that we described as an
undermining of a legitimate democracy, was the case. And as a matter of
fact, I think the story that you alluded to at the beginning of this
broadcast in the New York Times does not say that fully. But it
certainly has taken a big slice of that period to show America's
complicity in helping to undermine that government and destabilize that
That's not unusual for us. We've done that with many places.
While we talk about having democracy for the world, we undermine the
democracy of Chile, where we murdered and participated fully in the
murder of Allende. We have now talked about another legally existing
president in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. We sought to do everything to
diminish and demonize that president. We're speaking about other
democracies in the region. It is not unusual for us to be duplicitous
when it comes to talk.
We admit and accept democracies according to how we think they
serve our most selfish and our most arrogant and our most oppressive
needs. That's what we do, especially in the developing world. We
stepped in while Vietnam was trying to iron out its own internal
policies and were very close to having a victory there, when the United
States intervened and lied once again to the American people, led us to
a war that cost millions of lives, and all the things that we know
It’s not an unusual thing for us to do. And I think that
citizens just have to understand that the first order of business for a
democracy is vigilance among the citizens. It is a delicate instrument.
It continues to need nourishment and attention. And the minute we turn
away from that nourishment and that attention, it will be taken away
from us, as it is now appearing to be the case.
AMY GOODMAN: You knew Paul Robeson?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, very well.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Robeson, who the government pulled his
passport. The government went after him. White-listed from almost every
public space in this country. Have you been concerned in the past, and
especially if young people are listening, as you were deeply concerned
also about your career, that they could go after you in the same way?
And what did Paul Robeson say about this?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Paul Robeson was very clear. He felt
he did what he had to do, in conscience and in the spirit of this
nation. And he made a choice. He has never imposed that choice on
others. He knows that it is a very, very difficult thing to do,
especially if you're from the poor. Especially if you're in the black
community, coming from a line of never having to a moment where you
have access, and all of a sudden to put that access in jeopardy. And I
think that I would not put upon people some harsh judgment if they
found that they were living in a zone of fear and had to move
cautiously, as to what they would do to try to speak out against that
oppression. But I suspect that if it is not attended to in the
earliest, it may have to be attended to in the latest. And in the
latest, you may find that it’s too late.
AMY GOODMAN: You also knew Rosa Parks.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, I knew her.
AMY GOODMAN: What about her legacy? One of the things the
corporate media said when she died, though they did pay a lot of
attention, they made the point that she was no troublemaker. But it
looks like her history shows the very opposite. She was a troublemaker
from way back, committing her life to equality, against segregation.
HARRY BELAFONTE: She never stopped being a
troublemaker. But it is now to this country's best interest, in order
to further hide its villainy, to reach out and to somehow blur those
who were very revolutionary and those who, in the end, turned out to be
huge moral, as well as social, forces in our time, to lay claim to
them, because it helps hide who they are and what they do. Cheney, I
mean, he didn't want Dr. King to be a holiday. He worked vigorously
against the levels of acceptability that he has reached in the United
States government. I mean, our government is replete with people who
now lay claim to Dr. King and honor him.
Well, let me say this, as one who was instructed by Dr. King
to seek and to encourage redemption, I'm glad that at this late date in
life they somehow celebrate it. But I don't think they celebrate it in
honor. They celebrate it to subvert what it is that they do, by having
people believe that they embrace the principles of a woman like Rosa
Parks and people like Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most courageous of
AMY GOODMAN: Kanye West, after Hurricane Katrina, said President Bush doesn't like black people. Do you agree?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I do not know that I could look upon
President Bush as someone who actively works every day of his life to
oppress and to kill black people as a direct act of race. I think his
insensitivity, in the class frame, being who he is, coming from the
privileges that he does, being one who pursues the edge of imperial
ambition -- not so much the edge, he's right smack in the center of it
-- he can be expected to do those things, which will cruelly administer
no relief at all to those who are oppressed, who are poor. And in that
act, because of the way in which our society is structured, a large
group of brown people, a large group of yellow people, a large group of
black people, are on the cutting edge, are on the forefront of this
nation's poverty. And therefore, we feel the brunt of it.
One cannot help but wonder that if what happened in Katrina in
that region of America had happened somewhere in Maine or had happened
somewhere else in America where white sensibilities and white life
would have been in great jeopardy, that our nation would have been that
blurred, and certainly our government, to what was happening to the
citizens who are not white. I think somewhere in the American psyche,
black people are expendable when we try to sustain our positions of
privilege and our positions of power, just as I think people in the
Middle East are expendable. I don't think America really knows who we
are. We don't know our fellow citizens. We don't know the nations we
invade. We don't have a real deep and honest sense of who we are as a
people, both on the good side of the ledger, to who we are as a people
that comes from the dark side of the ledger. We are the most uninformed
people on the face of the earth. And I don't say that as hyperbole.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Americans should join the military, and do you think soldiers should go to Iraq?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I don't think soldiers should be
anywhere in the world. I mean, that is a moral and a basic philosophy.
I think that the only way to end wars is to have no military and to
find other ways in which -- I think we should suspend all nuclear
weapons. Do I think we can do that as an act that is instantaneous? No.
I think too much of the world is locked in to what the military
stabilizes in civilized society. So I think there is a process. But if
that is the goal and the aim, and it is so declared, then I think
citizens should participate in the prospect of disengagement.
Let me just say this. If you have a patient who is hit by a
disease, and doctors look and say, 'To go in, it will be a shock to the
body to move that, without looking at what it does to other parts of
the body; let us move to prepare the body for the moment of great
relief,’ then that's what we pursue. I think the same thing exists in a
civil society and in the political process. We have to be careful. But
I think that we should have as our goal to end military intrusion as a
way to settle grievances.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you counsel soldiers not to serve in Iraq?
HARRY BELAFONTE: If I were a soldier today or going into
the military today, as an act of conscience, I would not serve. I
volunteered to be in the United States Navy during the Second World War
as an act of conscience, not just because it gave me relief from
poverty and I had a place to go to maybe learn a skill, because I
wasn't learning anywhere I lived and had opportunity where I was
living, but because I really believed in the principles of what we
fought for and what we said we were doing in making the world safe. So
I think it's an act of conscience and an act of social responsibility
to say yes, as tens of thousands of young people do. We just don't hear
about them. I think we're having trouble recruiting young people,
because they're not readily volunteering because they have conflict
about what this war means and what our government is asking them to do.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds. Harry Belafonte, what gives you hope?
HARRY BELAFONTE: People. I cannot believe that that which
we have achieved in this country, nothing could have been darker than
the time of slavery. We extricated ourselves from that. Nothing could
be darker than a century of apartheid and oppression. We extricated
ourselves from that. The Second World War was not winnable by the
onslaught of the German forces. We won that. I think in the final
analysis, the people are the true frontier, and I think people will
save this nation. But it is only people who can do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, thank you for joining us.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Thank you for having me.
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