The world lost a giant this week. In his 96 years on this planet, Harry Belafonte didn’t just leave a mark — he blasted the landscape, carved and etched roads and paths others could walk down, as activists and as artists. He loved music and it loved him, but the fight for civil rights became the calling into which he poured his intellect, his clarity of purpose and his impatience with injustice. He had a voice and he used it. His friend Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I think that’s true, but only if, like Dr King and Harry Belafonte, we grab ahold of it and pull. It was one of the honours of my life to know Harry Belafonte, and he taught me one of the most important lessons of my life – while tying his shoes.
I am sitting on Harry ’s bed. There is only one chair in this small hotel room, and Bob Geldof is sitting on it as we watch our host get dressed. I recall the old French proverb “No man is great in the eyes of his valet”, but Harry Belafonte is great even when he’s pulling on his pants. What am I doing here? His backing band once included Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He is the king of calypso; he sang “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”, a track released on the first-ever million-selling album. He’s also a lifelong troublemaker for equality. And so good-looking he probably never had to check himself in a mirror.
Right now we are his mirror as he tightens the belt of his trousers and locks us both in his gaze, one eyebrow raised suggesting a collegial questioning of his appearance, but with no interest in the reply. We are another kind of mirror. Belafonte, now in his early seventies, has been fighting injustice since before we were born. With his combination of charm and admonition he has written the playbook for every artist-activist who came after him. In the 1960s, he reminds us, he marched in step with his friend Martin Luther King Jr in the civil rights movement, and as he bends to tie the laces of his shoes – which I would gladly have done – he tells us a story that has shaped every day of my life since.
From Irish writers in theatre – Wilde and Beckett, Synge and Behan – he segues into the Irish in politics, where we anticipate similar thrall with the arrival onstage of Irish royalty, the Kennedys. Not quite. Harry Belafonte rounds on Bobby Kennedy as a heel dragger, an obstacle in the way of the charging civil rights movement. I want to object that this was not how I’d seen it. But then I remember I’m not Black, I wasn’t there, and, anyway, Harry has the floor. He also has a speaking voice that sounds as if a fuzzbox were attached to his vocal cords, lending melodrama to his simplest expression. And with this stage whisper, he transports us back in time.
“When Jack Kennedy appointed Bobby to attorney general in ’61, it was such a setback to our struggle that it caused one of the most heated debates we ever had at the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference].
“Everyone in the room was sounding off about Bobby Kennedy. How he lacked the inspiration of his brother John, the president. That he was known to have warned JFK off trying to reconcile our agenda with that of the Democratic Party. Bobby was sure that if the White House got too close to the civil rights movement, it would cost the Democrats dear in the South, where holding the highest office in the land as a Catholic was already a stretch.” By all accounts, he confessed, “Scratch the surface and many who carry the banner of the Democratic Party would not exactly be antislavery.”
As the conversation grew more heated, Harry recalled how he turned to Martin Luther King, who he could tell was growing tired with the bitchin’ about Bobby Kennedy. “Martin slams his hand on the table to snap everyone out of it. ‘Does anyone here have anything positive to say about our new attorney general?’”
“No, Martin, that’s what we’re telling you,” comes the reply. “There’s nothin’ good about this man; he’s an Irish redneck, got no time for the Black man’s struggle.”
Dr King, said Harry, had heard enough and adjourned the meeting. “Gentlemen, I’m releasing you into the world to find one positive thing to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that one positive thing will be the door through which our movement will have to pass.”
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If I hadn’t been sure what I’d come looking for at the feet of Harry Belafonte, suddenly it was all clear. The search for common ground starts with a search for higher ground. Even with your opponents. Especially with your opponents. A lightbulb moment for me and a conviction that’s informed my life as a campaigner ever since. The simple but profound idea that you don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is important enough. But, hold on, school isn’t out.
Harry Belafonte hasn’t finished our lesson.
“Years later,” he continues, “when Bobby Kennedy lay dying on the kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, he’d become a civil rights hero. A leader, not a laggard, in our movement, and I ask myself to this day if we got him wrong in those early days. I’ll never know, but I still grieve his loss.” “So did you find it?” asks Bob, raising the question we were both thinking. “When the meeting reconvened, did you find that one positive thing Dr King was looking for?” “We did. Bobby was close to his bishop, who was in turn close to some of our clergy from the South. We found a door to move through.”
This extract was published with kind permission from the author. ‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ is available now