Singer, actor, writer, producer and activist Harry Belafonte addressed complex racial issues during the 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium at the Crystal Cove Auditorium on Jan. 20.
Belafonte was a close friend of the late King and an advocate of human rights.
He has been honored by many organizations for his active role in the fight for human rights and has been recognized as an exceptional performing artist by the Kennedy Center Honors.
As part of the three-day symposium entitled ‘Crossing the Lines: 50 Years of Desegregation,’ Belafonte expressed his concern for the lack of collective responsibility that exists in our society and called for an uprising against the oppression that exists in the world.
‘This country is filled with places that are flocked with poverty, pestilence, disease and hopelessness,’ Belafonte said. ‘The nation would have us believe that kind of tranquility and joy that you have here at UCI … is America. If you were to go to the places that I have been, you would see another America that is not only a great shame upon this nation and what it professes to stand for, but it is also a great shame for each of us as individuals.’
Belafonte described his experiences dealing with mandatory segregation in the U.S. Navy.
‘We trained with dummy weapons because somehow our society could not trust guns in the hands of young black men. We were committed to go into battle, and we served our nation honorably,’ Belafonte said.
Belafonte also described the cultural struggle that blacks were forced to face at home after fighting the war abroad.
‘We thought this was a place we could help shape, yet we came back to intensified application of the laws of segregation. We couldn’t vote, couldn’t go where we wanted, and were still denied access to a majority of educational facilities in our nation,’ Belafonte said.
Belafonte also spoke of the war in Iraq, describing it as a collective flaw and a collective responsibility.
‘Our men and women who die daily in Iraq do this nation a great service, but they are being dishonored by those who put them in that position,’ Belafone said. ‘[And} to watch daily how soldiers are destroyed as they destroy others is a guilt that we cannot bear. America has lost its sense of moral purpose. We see it every day, we watch it on television and we permit it to prevail.’
Belafonte addressed how people are inclined to selfishness with little regard for others.
‘The most central part of American culture is greed. We all have carved out lives for ourselves and we have more than any human being should be entitled to, in the face of the billions that go to bed hungry and the hundreds of millions who die from diseases that could be cured. How hedonistic we are as a people,’ Belafonte said.
The lack of debate, Belafonte said, promotes ignorance and suppression of our rights as citizens.
‘We have an obligation as citizens, to use our right to dissent and to insist on our right to be heard … to put it in the councils, chambers, universities and wherever there is debate … because if we don’t, there will come a time when we will be unable to speak to one another.’
He also reminded the audience that terrorism has been part of American history for centuries and that the fight to eliminate it has not progressed.
‘9-11 was not the first time terrorism has visited this nation, many of our citizens have viewed terror long before. Just look at Birmingham what happened to that church and the five children,’ Belfonte said. ‘Look around here in the state of California, at how many neo-fascist groups have begun to emerge and practice their villainy on the citizens of this nation.’
Addressing the students in the audience he stated, ‘Let me not be your only source of opinion [especially] those of you who are scholars. Look at the world at large. How you deny yourself exposure to this resource to further round your own thoughts your own feelings and your own concepts of what’s going on.’
Some students like Ruth Hwang, a fifth-year political science major, attended the symposium out of curiosity.
‘I just wanted to hear him speak and see what he has to say. I am so glad I came. I learned so much about him,’ Hwang said. ‘I just really think that one individual can make a difference.’
Certain students attended the event to survey the attendance. Julius Klein, a fifth-year foreign exchange student from Spain studying industrial-engineering stated, ‘I just wanted to see how active people were because in Europe we think that in this country, nobody does anything to do with social activity. I couldn’t believe that so I came here just to believe that people are active and there is still social movement in this country.’
Anna Gonzalez, director of the Cross Cultural Center, believes this symposium to be an asset for students.
‘It either challenges or affirms one’s beliefs,’ Gonzalez said. ‘I really believe that this is testament to the UCI community that we are willing to continue to engage the issue of equality in our nation in the 21st century.’ Over 500 people attended the lecture including faculty, students and some youth from the Santa Ana Academy Program.
Belafonte also reminded the audience to remember the efforts of Dr. King and to use them as a lesson for the future.
‘If you cut yourself off from history you cut yourself off from the future.’
Other previous keynote speakers include Cornel West, Yolanda King and Julian Bond. All were public intellectuals and activists who brought messages about social justice and Dr. King’s vision to UC Irvine.