On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Republican Party launched an attack on Harry Belafonte, who appeared Thursday night at a fundraiser for Elizabeth Warren. State GOP executive director Nate Little called Belafonte’s views “extreme,” “repugnant,” and “anti-American.” State GOP chairman Bob Maginn echoed that attack Thursday, calling Belafonte’s views “extreme and outrageous.”
That’s strong language to use against a beloved patriot and civil rights legend of Harry Belafonte’s stature.
Harry Belafonte has indeed said things that people might or might not agree with, like in 2006 when he called President Bush “the world’s greatest terrorist.” But, as Steve Hurley of the ACLU of Massachusetts says of the controversy Belafonte sometimes stirs up, “how could one agitate for social change and equal justice for more than half a century without doing so?”
To be perfectly honest, one important reason that the ACLU of Massachusetts cares about this controversy now is that we plan to give Harry Belafonte our Roger Baldwin Award—our highest honor, named for the ACLU’s Massachusetts-born founder—at our annual Bill of Rights Dinner on May 22. And, of course, we would love it if you were there.
But there’s another reason: Harry Belafonte, in addition to his tremendously successful career as a musician, is a hero. Calling out Nate Little, Steve Hurley writes:
Perhaps Mr. Little is unaware of Harry Belafonte’s record of courage and leadership in the struggle for equality in our country? Maybe he doesn’t know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called Belafonte’s popularity and commitment “a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America.” Quite possibly he’s unaware that Belafonte served our country in the U.S. Navy and as an advisor to the Peace Corps, or that he became only the second American to be appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He may not know that Belafonte’s activism has reached far past our borders, to include setting in motion the events that led to the “We Are the World” benefit for African famine relief, and serving as a leader of the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa and to free his friend, Nelson Mandela.
And that’s not even all. On March 29, 1960, the New York Times ran a full-page ad called “Heed Their Rising Voices,” an appeal to support the civil rights movement, co-written and signed by Harry Belafonte. Through a series of events and lawsuits, that ad led to a landmark Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which revolutionized libel law and paved the way for expanded news coverage of the civil rights struggle. In the words of Justice William Brennan, the ruling ensured discussion of public issues that is “robust, uninhibited, and wide open.” We are all the beneficiaries.
Anyone who can look at Harry Belafonte’s lifetime of work and sum it up as “extreme,” “repugnant,” or “dangerous” needs to take a look inside themselves. Harry Belafonte is not “anti-American.” Harry Belafonte is a great American.
Christopher Ott is communications director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.