Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Harry Belafonte & the March on Washington: "That was America at its greatest."

The atmosphere that day in Washington was a mixture of hope and excitement. I think that everyone who attended the march felt empowered. There was a tremendous sense that we were pursuing a cause that was honourable, but, equally, that what we wanted was achievable. We were there as Americans and all of America was represented that day. It felt like we were witnessing a new moment, a renaissance of hope and activism. It was truly inspiring.

But, you know, it was not just the day, but the weeks and months and days leading up to it. As a civil rights activist, I had many conversations with Robert Kennedy, who was worried (...). We assured Robert Kennedy that it would be focused, well marshalled and non-violent and he wanted to believe us, but our detractors had his ear also. The city was surrounded by police and state troopers on the ready. So, we also had something to prove. And prove it we did.

It was glorious. We had high expectations and they were fulfilled. There was a young speaker I remember who preceded Dr King, a forceful young man called John Lewis from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was very outspoken about America's leaders even though he toned his rhetoric down after some of the civil rights people asked him to. That was a good speech. There were several rousing speeches before Dr King took the platform, as well as music and singing. It was an energising day.

Of course, the "I Have a Dream" speech was the event of the day. It has since been recognised as one of the great speeches of American history. I was not surprised by the content, because we had worked with him on it and we were in tune with the message, but what we were not prepared for was the delivery, the oratory. The imagery flowed, the language flowed. It was Shakespearean.

There is one thing I have to say about the speech, though, and I say it when I am called on to speak about Dr King to students all over America. I tell them: you need to study the whole speech because the text before the "I Have a Dream" part is a deeper reflection of what he was striving for. The details and the passion of the struggle are spelt out in the preceding passages.

The spirit that Dr King called forth was a profoundly American spirit, as was his struggle. What made me feel so good about that struggle was that it was ordinary people who were becoming empowered through his words, to realise their own possibilities.

Much of my political outlook was already in place when I encountered Dr King. I was well on my way and utterly committed to the civil rights struggle. I came to him with expectations and he affirmed them. Like many black American men of my generation, I had lived through two defining moments: I had been born into the Great Depression and I had fought for America against the Nazis in the second world war.

To then come back to an America where black people were denied their basic rights as citizens was to come back to a so-called democracy where political evils still taunted us. Then we looked around us and saw that England, Belgium, France, the great colonisers, were hanging on to their colonies even after the second world war. I believe to this day that it was that experience that underpinned the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in America. We had to take on the challenge, fight these injustices, these evils. (...)

That is why I sometimes say in my speeches that we have to stop this deification of Dr King and look at him as an ordinary man who empowered himself and others through politics and activism. Look at the details of his struggle: the strategy, the speeches, the mind, the intellect. Then you can begin to understand how an ordinary man is empowered to find himself. Who was Martin Luther King before he was Dr Martin Luther King? He came from somewhere and that somewhere was the same hardship and struggle to survive of many of his followers. He had the same fears and hopes and anxieties and aspirations. To deify him is, in a way, to reduce his achievement and to remove the radicalism from it. I would counsel against that and argue for a real reappraisal of his achievements, which were of the highest order.

One of my abiding memories of the day was something I will probably never experience again: such a tide of people leaving with such a sense of satisfaction and hope. That was America at its greatest. And I have no doubt we can get back there again by moving forward. We need leaders, though, spokesmen and women we can have faith in, not this compromised form of leadership that is cynical and speaks out for the power of the few at the cost of the many. (...)

But there is also a new passion for struggle on the horizon. (...) In my experience, when people feel they have had enough, activism grows and, from activism, comes change.

I can feel it in the air when I speak at colleges all over America, which I am being asked to do now more than ever. Young people are hungry for change. They carry an optimism and a great sense of hope but it has not yet been articulated. But, it will be because it must be. That, too, is Dr King's legacy. He made history, but history also made him.

Harry Belafonte, 2013

Related postings:

::: Martin Luther King Day: LINK
::: I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze: LINK
::: Sammy Davis, Jr. Gets a Letter from Martin Luther King: LINK
::: I have a dream: LINK
::: "And we shall overcome." From Selma to Montgomery: LINK

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literally via/complete text (The Guardian, 11 August 2013)
photographs via and via and via and via