I'm back at Dartmouth now, but am continuing to blog about New Orleans, since the city's problems persist, as well as my own many memories I've yet to post. Anyways, last night entertainer and Martin Luther King confidant Harry Belafonte spoke to an audience of about 900. His speech, which I've summarized below, was the greatest speech I have ever heard (and I've heard many speeches from politicians and activists). He issued a call to action - not a national call, but an individual call. What can YOU do? What have you actually done?
I would encourage anyone who can spend a week or more in the Gulf Coast to do so - those people need you, and it's an injustice to let them suffer - so as part of that encouragement, here's a summary of Mr. Belafonte's remarks:
Belafonte never raised his voice, never yelled, and never got excited, but there was nevertheless an urgency to his words; they were very powerful, perhaps forceful. He told us of his last meeting with MLK. King and his confidants were discussing integration, and King said "I fear we are being integrated into a burning house" - an indictment of Vietnam and other U.S. problems. The assembled were quite surprised, and asked what should we do? King, as he picked up his hat and left for Memphis, said we should become firemen.
Belafonte, addressing the typical how far have we come question, said not really that far. You might say but in his day, there were Nazis and swatstikas and marches and whites-only signs and no-black signs, there were lynchings and hangings, and other very visible images. He said those images are still around today: What have you really done about Katrina? You say you're against Iraq; what have you really done about Iraq? What have you really done about our exploding prison population problem? (He talked at length about the prison problem.)
We must speak the truth, he said, and dismissed the whole idea of "What is truth? There's your truth, there's my truth" - bull. There's THE truth. (That was the only applause line within the speech, and - self-call - I started it!) Radical thought can be your best friend, he said. By this, he doesn't mean extremism - he means thinking outside the box. He highlighted some of the biggest advances society has made, and said they were all examples of progressive thinking, NOT conservative thinking. He took a few swipes at Bush, talked about big projects he's worked on and seen others work on, told us of speaking with other lazier celebrities, called us to action several times, and answered a few questions.
At the reception afterwards, I overheard one man say, "I was a member of the progressive activist movement for years." HB: "What do you mean, 'was'?" Man: "Well, that's what I want to tell you about. The last decade or so, I've grown very cynical, especially with the current guys in office. I've become more jaded and bitter, and given up most hope. You, sir, were just what the doctor ordered." I heard other older people say similar things. It was the best speech I've ever heard, and while they don't plan on putting out a transcript, there will be a DVD.