If President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the notion of a bully pulpit – or visible public position from which to speak one’s mind – entertainer/social activist Harry Belafonte has taken the concept one step further.
Not only does being in the public view obligate one to speak out on social issues, Belafonte told The Jewish Standard, “but it is the only reason, the only justification,” for having such a public persona.
Recipient of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section’s 2009 Hannah G. Solomon Award, the 82-year-old Belafonte exemplifies the qualities endorsed by the group, said Nancy Landis, outgoing president.
“He has been a catalyst for social change,” she said, noting that his “enormous” biography is a virtual catalogue of the outreach and advocacy activities – many in behalf of children and families – championed by NCJW.
NCJW will present the award at its 86th Annual Installation Luncheon on June 9 at the Estate of Florentine Gardens in River Vale.
Throughout his career, Belafonte – who has been deeply involved in causes from the American civil rights movement to famine relief for Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa – has been honored by many Jewish organizations. The entertainer, who said he enjoys “a very close relationship with the Jewish community and Jewish culture,” spoke of “a great commonality on many issues.”
In choosing where to direct his energies, Belafonte has targeted “any issue where there are human rights violations,” particularly where people are facing “the abyss of poverty.”
In 1987, he was appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador; and in 1990, acted as host for the World Summit on the Child, held at the United Nations. Among other awards, he has received the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Medal, the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize, and the Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts. In 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him cultural adviser to the Peace Corps.
An active supporter, confidant, and friend of King and his family – he raised thousands of dollars to bail King and other civil rights protesters out of jail – Belafonte also financed Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives, and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963. Still, he told the Standard, while he knew that “citizens of color would someday occupy all the positions” in this nation – he cited the appointment of Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and of Colin Powell as secretary of state – he did not expect to see a black president “in my lifetime.”
Belafonte, who said he “came from poverty,” noted that despite the many social problems demanding attention, he remains an optimist.
“If everyone was educated and had the capacity to be informed, they would make the right choice,” he said. Among those problems, he cited “the need to eradicate poverty and eliminate prejudice. We don’t teach enough,” he said. “We need to inform our young people [about] a host of truths.”
Belafonte said he has seen a good deal of progress in the areas he has tackled in his 20 years as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. He noted, however, that while there has “absolutely been improvement” in combating problems from AIDS to child soldiers, much more remains to be done. “We’ve done a lot to raise consciousness” about these issues, he said, “but not enough. The task is far from over.”
As important as making continued progress, he said, is “the need to nail down what we achieved,” something that was particularly challenging during the last presidential administration, he said.
While he takes pride in his efforts on behalf of human rights – “I’ve used my art and my platform to break down the institutions of prejudice,” he said – he also is gratified by his success as an entertainer.
Belafonte said he derives great pleasure “when people tell me how much my music has meant to them.” The singer/actor, who introduced many now-famous performers – his album “Midnight Special (1962) featured the first-ever recorded appearance by harmonica player Bob Dylan – said one fan told him he had proposed to his future wife at one of the singer’s concerts, while another credited Belafonte with helping him through a long night of studying for a college exam.
“It makes me feel I’ve used my platform well,” he said.
According to NCJW’s Landis, Belafonte is the first “big celebrity” to receive the Hannah G. Solomon Award.
“Some of our members heard him speak and realized that he was doing the same kind of work” as NCJW, said the Oradell resident, noting that she is most proud of the 1,200-member section’s commitment to “hands-on community service.”
“We ask a lot of our members,” she said, citing programs from working with children at Hackensack’s Youth Correctional Facility to taking senior citizens shopping.
Bergenfield’s Barbara Kaufman, who will be installed as the new president on June 9, added that “NCJW maintains an active advocacy program that operates on the state as well as national level. We work hard to influence our state and federal representatives to pass legislation that supports and enhances the rights of women, children, and families.”