Over the last year Harry Belafonte’s inter-generational feud with Jay Z has brought much attention to the image of today’s celebrities. And although the acclaimed entertainer and activist expressed his great distaste for some of today’s high-profile artists’ sense of social responsibility, he has celebrated others in the past for revealing America’s strengths.
With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington steadily approaching, Belafonte opened up to Smithsonian magazine during an interview to explain some of the things that he was most impressed about while attending the historical rally half a century ago.
“When you looked out at the large crowd and saw so many young faces that were white, and so many that were senior citizens. People linking arms with black people, whose parents may have never linked an arm with a black person before,” he recalled.
“And at one moment we were all laughing at the same time. Being led in song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Mahalia [Jackson]. And all the other great artists that took the platform. And even the celebrities that spoke the way in which the audience was lit up with a sense of mission and purpose, commonality. And I looked at this mosaic and I said, ‘That’s the America that I believe in. And that’s the America that we need to reveal.’”
In addition to Belafonte’s interview, luxury brand Montblanc is set to launch a special edition, 1963 libretto written by the singer-actor, detailing his personal account of his civil rights involvement, as well as his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the months leading up to the march.
The exclusive manuscript will be made available through Thornwillow Press and distributed to a select group of global leaders, pioneers, executives, patrons, tastemakers, scholars and artists.
Check out an excerpt of Harry Belafonte’s 1963 libretto below, and his Smithsonian magazine in the clip above.
BELAFONTE – MARCH ON WASHINGTON
“I have a dream…I have a dream today…” Can it be 50 years ago that Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington and uttered those immortal words?
The passage of time from that hot August day of l963 seems infinitely long, yet I can see the day so clearly still: crowds seeping across the National Mall, hundreds cooling their feet in the Reflecting Pool, the podium and reviewing stand set by the Lincoln Memorial for the speech to come.
I can see Martin, too, as he looked that summer before the march: hopeful but anxious, profoundly aware of the challenges we faced. What if the White House, or the FBI, found a pretext to cancel the march? Or if they didn’t, what if no one came? A small crowd would all but destroy Martin’s clout and credibility. At this critical time, the whole civil rights movement might die.
The year of l963 had begun like any other. But startling events, and new voices, had shaken things up early on. In February, a powerful new book called “The Feminine Mystique” created the cause of feminism and made its first-time author, Betty Friedan, a catalyst for change. Weeks later, the first Beatles album to reach America, “Please, Please Me,” shot up the charts with a whole new sound that changed pop music forever. The very pillars of American society were being knocked down.
And then came the showdown that would re-ignite the civil rights movement, pushing Dr.King into a standoff with President Kennedy and his brother, the U.S. Attorney General, and making the March on Washington not only possible but necessary: Birmingham. Along with Dr.King, I would be pulled into Birmingham, too, and then into planning the march. I’d made a name for myself as an entertainer around the world. To help Dr. King in the way he needed, I’d have to use that celebrity now, to a degree that no star had before.
I’d first met Martin on a spring Sunday in l956 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I wasn’t a churchgoer by nature. Usually on Sunday mornings I was sleeping late, after a show at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, or the new Riviera in Vegas, or the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. Church wasn’t my style, but Dr. King had called to ask if I’d come. “You don’t know me, Mr.Belafonte,but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.”
I knew who King was. I knew why he was calling, too. Four months into the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott started by Rosa Parks, Dr. King, the boycott’s spiritual leader, had come to New York in desperate search of funds to keep the boycott going.
I knew that whatever King wanted from me would probably involve writing a check. That was fine. I was at the top of my game as a singer and actor, with best-selling albums and a hit Broadway show. I was making good money, and happy to write checks. The misgivings I had were of a different sort. No one else quite like him had appeared in my lifetime, with the exception of Gandhi. Would he live up to the hype?
LISTEN: Songs Inspired By The Civil Rights Movement