Harry Belafonte — who besides having had an illustrious acting and singing career has been a leader in the civil rights movement, worked to halt gang violence, fought apartheid in South Africa, and served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF — was the keynote speaker at the 11th biannual Gertrude and Milton Kleinman Consultation on Conscience.
He was joined on May 15 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick by three other leaders who, faced with racial and religious discrimination, hatred, and violence, have focused their energies on finding ways to overcome injustice and help others.
Belafonte’s latest initiative is founding the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, a nonprofit organization through which artists use their talents to build awareness and confront issues with negative impacts on marginalized communities.
“I just hope I’m around to see what’s to come,” said Belafonte; he said he will turn 90 in a few months, but is looking forward to Sankofa’s first major event in Atlanta Oct. 1-2, where, he promised, “we’ll stir it up like a Woodstock.”
Also appearing was Keshia Thomas, an African-American who in 1996, at age 18, was part of a group protesting a KKK rally in Ann Arbor, Mich. But when a Klansman was detected among them and the crowd turned hostile and knocked down the man — who had a Nazi tattoo and wore a T-shirt depicting the Confederate flag — Thomas shielded him. She has been a nonviolent activist in many causes and was one of the original marchers at the NAACP’s America’s Journey of Justice last year from Selma to Washington, DC.
“Violence is never the answer to violence,” said Thomas. “You want change. My philosophy is you have to build bridges.”
NJ Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Dist. 33), the son of Indian immigrants, put himself through college and graduate and law school before joining the Marines.
In his role as a political leader, he has concentrated on two pressing civil rights issues of the day, he said: “the vast and unacceptable” gaps in educational opportunities afforded to poor minority children, and a criminal justice system that focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation for drug offenses and that incarcerates an inordinate number of minorities.
“We are 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have a quarter of the world’s prisoners,” said Mukherji. “There are 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S., and 60 percent of them happen to be African-American or Latino.”
The third speaker was Gerald Ostrov, CEO of reThink Israel, which he cofounded with his wife, Aimee. It aims its efforts on young adults who live in a social media-driven world, presenting positive stories about Israel that center on such areas as the arts, fashion and culture, environment, and food.
Since its launch several years ago, the nonprofit organization, whose name has recently been changed to From the Grapevine, has reached millions throughout the world on its website and social media sites, engaging users in conversations, not debates, said Ostrov.
“Social media is it,” he said. “It is trusted. It comes from their friends, not the media.”
Belafonte, who fought racial discrimination much of his life, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and bailed out the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other imprisoned freedom fighters during the civil rights movement.
Belafonte was the driving force behind “We Are the World,” the 1985 song recorded by a large group of renowned artists that raised millions for famine relief in Ethiopia.
As he greeted the audience, Belafonte said, he thought, “What would I say to an audience that is totally Jewish? Then I thought I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday than in a room full of Jews.”
Belafonte, who has performed in Tel Aviv and Haifa, said he has drawn historical context from the Jewish experience. He said he is “deeply” frustrated by the current American political landscape.
He recalled his own humble beginning as the child of an uneducated Jamaican immigrant domestic worker who joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to become a seamstress; she took her children to work with her, said Belafonte, so “they didn’t run wild in the streets.” It was at the union that Belafonte first heard about “the ills of the world.”
At 17 during World War II he joined the Navy. He said he learned “a lot about Hitler, fascism, and racism” and discovered “one of the greatest oppressors was the U.S. military, which was deeply segregated.”
“We were not permitted to train in weaponry,” recalled Belafonte, who said he was also denied the right to vote because of his color while in service. Most of the African-American men who arrived in Germany with the U.S. armed forces, “those who landed in Normandy, had never fired a gun because the military believed men of color could not be trusted. In our anger and rage” — it was feared — “we would turn our weapons on our officers.”
Belafonte was also exposed to anti-Semitism and “Jews being crucified in gas chambers,” and said he left the Navy “a very bitter person.”
Despite the pledge that America was fighting to end fascism and racism, Belafonte found racism was still alive and well in the United States.
“I saw it when I walked through the streets of the South,” said Belafonte. “Thank God for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Jewish activists I met who guided me toward intellectual activity.”
While working as a janitor, someone gave him two tickets to the American Negro Theater in Harlem as a tip, where he had an “epiphany” while watching Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis on stage.
Belafonte enrolled in the New School for Social Research drama program, studying alongside such future stars as Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur, Tony Curtis, and Walter Matthau. His first film was Carmen Jones in 1954, and soon after he began singing hit calypso songs.
Noting that “retirement is an illusion,” Belafonte said he has never ceased involvement in political and social causes, including bringing warring gangs together, initially entering the L.A. County Jail to talk to gang members.
The idea to enlist artists, performers, and prominent individuals to deliver messages of moral and political consequence through Sankofa is in keeping with a tradition of artists bringing social issues to the forefront.
Sankofa has partnered with Usher, whose new song, “Chains,” speaks about discrimination and police violence facing African-Americans and many other communities. Other recording artists and actors working with Sankofa include Common, John Legend, Carlos Santana, Danny Glover, and Rosario Dawson.