In 1964, when they were both 37, Harry Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier traveled to the town of Greenwood, Miss. As the two entertainers made their journey to meet with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, they were chased and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan. But they succeeded in their mission. They hand-delivered a doctor’s bag filled with $70,000, money collected in a series of small fundraisers, to help with the student committee’s voter registration effort.
It was just one of the many times Belafonte’s actions proved his commitment to the civil rights movement, a commitment he had made years earlier directly to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when their friendship was new. Over the years, he marched side by side with King, served as a key coordinator for many events (including the March on Washington) and even supported Coretta Scott King, financially by paying for housekeepers and babysitters while her husband traveled the country, and emotionally in the days following King’s assassination, staying with her while she chose the suit in which her husband would be buried.
Fast forward. At 90, Belafonte, a World War II veteran, a cancer survivor, an award-winning singer, actor and outspoken social justice advocate, continues to keep that promise to King in mind. On Jan. 16, the powerful world citizen will be the featured speaker for the student-run University Lecture Series at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Belafonte spoke to the Tampa Bay Times by phone on Dec. 27, from his home in New York.
What are you reading?
I read a lot of American history. I’m interested in Lincoln and the period in which he decided to be president, and I read his letters and speeches. I read a lot of historical novels. I like to study characters of history that I’m interested in.
I read all I can on W.E.B. DuBois. I see him as the first published intellectual that came from the black community — a brilliant intellectual, a great student. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard. I decided to absorb all I could on the subjects he wrote on.
I’ve also been very interested in Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and certainly all the things by Dr. King. There are some books of fiction I read, but only when critics recommend them. I enjoy nonfiction and books on social studies more, and I am interested in speech analysis.
When you say you have an interest in speech analysis, what does that mean?
For example, Michael Manley, the former prime minister of Jamaica, he was a great public speaker. I liked studying his speeches and what he was referring to.
I understand you considered the prime minister a friend.
Yes, very much so.
And there was your friend Martin Luther King Jr. Do you hold a particular speech of King’s in higher regard than others?
I believe it was the speech he gave here in New York (at the Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan). It was an important speech. It explained why he decided to take on the responsibility of entering into the fray of the issue of Vietnam and world peace. There was a lot of resistance. A lot of people felt the civil rights movement and world peace had no correlation, but I think Dr. King put that idea to rest. He spoke up very strongly in that speech on why he chose to enter his opinion on the war in Vietnam. It was very clearly stated. That was important.
You grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia. How do you encourage parents of children with dyslexia to keep them engaged in learning?
I think people with dyslexia are prone to excel in areas where they are not expected to excel. So my advice is to look for special skills. Watch carefully where their interests lie and encourage their interests. It will reveal some interesting and perhaps unexpected values. When I was born, the disorder was not even known. It was not until well into my life that it was discovered and a lot of people began writing on the subject, and I was a beneficiary of those thoughts.
Do you have plans for your talk at USF?
I speak extemporaneously. I get to the campus as early as necessary, and I try to feel the mood of the campus. I talk to the administration and get a sense of what the students are interested in and speak accordingly.
In the fall at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, you said that you were thinking of not making any more public appearances. I know many people are thankful you are coming. What made you decide to make this appearance?
The fact is that since it is a university, and I simply wanted to accept it. I believe in that, getting my point of view out as much as I can in such a place.
Do you believe, at the beginning of 2018, that the nation is on the right track as far as celebrating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
I think the nation is on the right track, but not our leaders. Unfortunately, Americans are experiencing Donald Trump as the head of state. He is not a bright man. I don’t think he has the best interest of the American people in mind. So, therefore, I can say we have a lot of work to do. There is a lot of attention to be paid to a lot of issues that Dr. King was very interested in — race relations, issues of war and peace and all of the things that made up the King personality.
What would you most like to see a young person here in Florida do right now?
Speak out and begin a motion to impeach the president and get another election held to get a new president. You don’t need money. If you can just write a letter, you have enough equipment to contact Congress and start the process. It doesn’t require (financial) resources. It just requires commitment.
I think citizens must become more deeply involved in the electoral process. With what happened with us, what we saw during the last presidential election, I don’t think you can take anything for granted. Citizens must exercise a greater consciousness with their vote, and with that, recognize what happens with the absence of their vote. I think that is very important.