RALEIGH — At 83, singer Harry Belafonte can boast a deep connection to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: sending bail money to its leaders who were jailed for their protests, flying to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter drive, entertaining activists with his famous Banana Boat Song.
But as he addressed SNCC's 50th anniversary reunion at Shaw University on Friday, Belafonte shunned nostalgia. Instead, he scolded the crowd for celebrating civil rights triumphs of the past while staying silent on modern-day injustice.
"Most of what I'm hearing is about what was, and how well we did it," said Belafonte in a hoarse voice. "We all know what was, and how well we did it. The question is, 'Who is talking about what is, and how badly we are doing it now?'"
More than 800 people from across the nation are at Shaw for the conference, which runs through Sunday.
The aged civil rights warriors who endured beatings and arrests in the cause of black equality rose to their feet as Belafonte took the microphone. They clapped and chanted "Day-O," his best-known song. But Belafonte quickly changed the mood.
He asked why we don't hear more outcry about the growing prison population in America, or the rapes in the Congo, or the neo-fascist rise in Germany, or the need to instill today's youth with the same sense of moral purpose that drove the civil rights movement. He spoke about his efforts to make peace between youth gangs, and the trouble he finds getting onetime SNCC members to lend help.
'Where is our voice?'
"Where is our voice?" Belafonte asked. "Why are we so soft?"
A global activist, Belafonte turns up frequently in the Triangle. A Habitat for Humanity development in Southeast Raleigh includes a Belafonte Drive, just off Jimmy Carter Street.
Belafonte's words are rarely gentle, even though he is 83. Four years ago, he called George W. Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world" for the war he waged in Iraq, and he has labeled Colin Powell a liar for his insistence that Iraqis were harboring weapons of mass destruction.
In 2006, Belafonte spoke at Duke University for a commemoration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In that speech, he suggested a moral equivalence between the Sept. 11 hijackers and the war in Iraq. "What is the difference between that terror and other terrors?" he asked.
In 2007, Belafonte endorsed former N.C. Sen. John Edwards for president. Edwards, the now-disgraced Raleigh lawyer, had to distance himself from Belafonte's description of Bush as a "tyrant" and for supporting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Barbs for Obama
On Friday, Belafonte asked the crowd at Shaw to be more self-critical, more self-analytical and to continue to the commitment to ending oppression that SNCC showed 50 years ago. He drew only a muted applause when he expressed disappointment in President Barack Obama's agenda, which he said included propping up banks in a time of economic crisis.
"Yes, I'm proud that Barack Obama is president," he said, but "I find nothing that speaks to the issue of the poor. I find nothing that speaks to the issue of the disenfranchised. I find a lot of people rushing for cover anytime you criticize Barack Obama."
After the speech, Shaw's interim president, Dorothy C. Yancy, called Belafonte's words a good reminder.
"You see things happen and the world changes," she said. "But I know why I do what I do. The youth are our future."
The conference continues today with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He will likely have Belafonte as a listener. The singer, who will perform tonight, promised to stay at the conference to the end, just to see how it winds up.
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