The lifelong friendship between Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. : NPR

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Author Jeff Sharlet remembers the life and legacy of Harry Belafonte. Whereas writing a profile on the actor and singer, he says he got here to know Belafonte’s life as “a part of the lengthy wrestle.”



MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, as folks have been remembering the activist and singer Harry Belafonte, who died on Tuesday, they’ve talked about his music…

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DAY O”)

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day o.

BLOCK: …And the outsized function Belafonte performed all through the civil rights motion. That function led to a deep and enduring friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. When Belafonte visitor hosted “The Tonight Present” in 1968, he insisted that King be a visitor on the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE TONIGHT SHOW”)

BELAFONTE: What do you could have in retailer for us this summer season?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: That is an excellent query.

BLOCK: When author Jeff Sharlet hung out with Belafonte for a profile, the artist instructed him about a few of the extra memorable moments in his relationship with King.

JEFF SHARLET: When King was in New York, he stayed in Belafonte’s 21-room condominium – a hideout from even King’s closest allies. No person knew it was there, Belafonte instructed me. No person knew his quantity. No person knew. He had his personal key.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

SHARLET: He had his personal entrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR LATCH CLICKING)

SHARLET: King would slip in late, and Julie Belafonte would deliver out the Harveys Bristol Cream they stored for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY BEING POURED)

SHARLET: King all the time marked the bottle with a line. It was a joke. Or possibly it was a border between the world exterior and this secret retreat at Harry’s. Some nights they’d speak techniques and technique. Typically they’d simply crack one another up. Within the corridor at Belafonte’s condominium – smaller now – there was {a photograph} of the 2 of them at Harry’s, the rarest of photographs of King, busting a intestine with laughter, eyes squeezed shut – not the noble Christ determine we’re used to now, however a fats, jolly Buddha.

Some nights, King wrote. He’d scratch out one thing on a yellow authorized pad…

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SCRATCHING)

SHARLET: …Placed on his MLK swimsuit and depart for a fundraiser. Then he’d return to the condominium, sip some sherry…

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY BEING POURED)

SHARLET: …Turn into Martin once more, write a couple of extra phrases…

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SCRATCHING)

SHARLET: …Crumple the web page and toss it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRUMPLING)

SHARLET: Earlier than it hit the ground, mentioned Belafonte, my hand was there like Willie Mays. Do not throw that out. Maintain on, man. That is your writing.

Belafonte would clean the wrinkled pages and retailer them away – the sacred textual content of a person, he insisted, even now, should not be deified. King, to Harry, was a comrade. There have been demise threats and bomb scares and arson makes an attempt. While you marched in entrance, subsequent to King, you needed to be able to die. Belafonte’s closest name got here in 1964. He had tapped the celebrities – Sinatra, Brando, Baez…

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) We will overcome.

SHARLET: …And his personal funds to lift cash for the Mississippi Freedom Summer season’s voter registration drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: This can be a assembly of Freedom Summer season volunteers in New York’s…

SHARLET: Then, three activists disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Tonight, Andrew Goodman and two companions are the main target of a complete nation’s concern.

SHARLET: On August 4, the FBI discovered the our bodies – James Chaney, a 21-year-old Black man from Mississippi; two white males from New York – 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner. That they had been shot. Goodman had been buried alive. That evening, one of many leaders of the voter drive known as Belafonte.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SHARLET: Change of plans. Initially, volunteers have been to work two-week shifts. Now, they have been going to remain – each one in all them. They wanted more cash. How a lot? – Belafonte requested. At the least $50,000 inside three days. There was no manner a Black man in New York might wire $50,000 to a civil rights activist in Mississippi. It would be like sending a demise warrant. Any individual must hand-deliver money.

Belafonte known as his pal, Sidney Poitier. They could assume twice about killing two Black stars, or they won’t. As quickly as they stepped off a little bit Cessna in Greenwood, Miss., the pilot wheeled round and took off. After they bought into the automotive, its end sanded all the way down to uninteresting its shine, a pair of headlights throughout the sphere popped on, then one other, and one other – extra. Federal brokers, Belafonte instructed Poitier. Brokers, my ass, mentioned the driving force. That is the Klan.

The motive force, a person named Willie Blue, made straight for the lights. On the final second, he veered off. Belafonte shouted, sooner, man. Uh-uh, mentioned Willie Blue. Sheriff’s deputy would pull them over, and so they’d wind up identical to the three boys the feds pulled out of the river. The automotive jolted. A truck had rammed them. The automotive shuddered – the evening, darkish and moist and sizzling, pouring in by the home windows, Belafonte and Poitier twisting round towards the obtrusive lights, as if their star energy might cease them. It is OK, mentioned Willie Blue. So long as they might keep in entrance, the boys within the truck could not draw a bead.

Near city, a convoy of activists got here out to fulfill them. Lots of, white and Black, waited in a dance corridor. The applause, remembered Belafonte, was like nothing he’d ever identified. He let the group fall quiet – simply Mississippi evening. Then he sang – day o.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DAY O”)

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day.

SHARLET: Day o.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DAY O”)

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day o.

SHARLET: He’d modified the phrases – freedom, freedom. Freedom come, and it will not be lengthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DAY O”)

BELAFONTE: (Singing) I would like go dwelling.

SHARLET: When the music was over, Belafonte held up a black physician’s bag and dumped $70,000 in small payments on the desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STAR O”)

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Star a come and I carry me load. Star a come and I carry me load.

BLOCK: That is author and Dartmouth professor Jeff Sharlet. His ebook is “The Undertow: Scenes From A Gradual Civil Warfare.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “STAR O”)

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Star o come and…

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