Interview with Harry Belafonte
QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

Any ___--

HARRY BELAFONTE:

First time flames, really came into, into very visible. It was, it was, it was an unbearable experience for those of us who had sought to pursue the guidelines set down by Dr. King, ah, guidelines we ourselves accepted. Ah, I don't think it was--I, the, the person for whom it was the most troublesome, was Dr. King himself. Ah, the thing that he had feared most, that violence would erupt, ah, that it would become a, a, a major player in the course of, of, of our history, was very, very troublesome and he, he wretched over trying to find the miracle that would make the difference because he felt he had failed. He felt that, ah, ah, no matter how much one would define for him that social and historical and environmental circumstances were very, very much at play. He so believed in his objectives that he also saw himself as the missionary for that objective, as having to be all omnipotent, ah, on some level, that he should somehow be, be, be much more touched with the ability to inspire so that people could understand more fully that he was, that he would somehow be able to get over. And the Detroit riots was the beginning of a whole series of events that, ah, ah, took him on a, on a special course. One meeting that we have at my home, he had come back from a meeting in, in Newark. He had met with Imamu [Amiri] Baraka.

INTERVIEWER:

Don't lose that.





HARRY BELAFONTE:

Ours had to be done, ah, on a number of, of, of major campaigns, whether it was the March on Washington or Birmingham or Selma, ah, Montgomery. Certainly, or, the Poor People's Campaign, Dr. King came to New York, he would convene a number of people from media, journalists, opinion makers, leaders. And Dr. King used that time to be able to give a firsthand discussion, a firsthand definition as to what the campaign was about, what he hoped to achieve, what was the reason behind it, ah, what were the tactics and what would be the various moves that would, ah, be unfolded in the event of certain, ah, encounters. Ah, this did, did one thing in particular. It did a lot of things in general but one thing in particular was that it gave allies to the movement, and even those who were prepared to ask objective journalistic questions, an opportunity to hear from King directly, what the campaign was about. So that once we unleashed the campaign there would be, to try to get Dr. King at that time and to try to get a clear picture as to what was going on, was not the most ideal environment in which to do it. So he always convened, ah, strategic people to hear what Dr. King had to say and to query the, the objectives. On such an occasion, before coming to the meeting in New York at my home, Dr. King had to meet with, ah, a group in Newark at a place called New Ark, which was where, ah, Imamu [Amiri] Baraka had headquartered himself. And Dr. King came late and, ah, he gave his, his apologies for lateness, went on with the discussion as to the campaign, because it, it was the Poor People's Campaign that he was on his way to, to Memphis. Ah, at the end of that meeting, when everybody had left, Dr. King was highly, highly agitated and he was, you could tell when he paced, he had his shoes were off, his tie was open, he was walking up and down the living room and talking and Andy was there, and, ah, ah, Bernard Lee was there, my wife, myself. And, ah, there was one other person, I think it was Stan Levenson, I'm not too sure. But, Dr. King, it was the first time that I heard him say something that we, we quoted quite a bit later on, and he said, I really, I'm very, very concerned. Because he was looking at all the riots and all the aggression that was beginning to emerge, and he said, ah, This integration movement is beginning to unfold things that I had never quite envisioned and I wonder if we are not in fact integrating into a burning house. And he then began to, it was the first time that I had heard him utter anything that suggested that there was another dimension to this whole theory. We were going, going, we were all going to have to go someplace else. That, for him, by the time the Poor People's Campaign came about and all this eruption was taking place, the Civil Rights Bill as we eventually got, he knew was coming. Nobody quite knew in what form, what all the details would have been, but he knew that that victory was in hand, that the Civil Rights Movement itself would have to give way to something much more profound: economic rights. That's why he began to talk about the Poor People's Campaign. He saw the amalgamation now coming, moving away from just Blacks and Whites looking to integrate but bringing the people together in a much more fundamental way around issues that affected everybody regardless of race, class or color or not class but race or color or ideology. It was the chance to bring the Native American, the chance to bring the Hispanics, a chance, on levels that they felt directly, ah, in tune with. Ah, and it was at this time that he raised the question, ah, about integrating into a burning house. Ah, he didn't accept that that's where we were going but certainly the question was there very largely. It was in this context that rioting, ah, I think required Dr. King to begin to[SIC], because on hindsight now, at the time Dr. King came into being, there were less than 300 Black elected officials, on all levels of electoral politics. By this time in our history, in, in, in the thresh of the 21st century in the 1990s, we are looking at somewhere around six thousand.