October 17, 2011 / 7:10 PM / 8 years ago

Wall St. protesters give hope to activist Belafonte

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Occupy Wall Street protesters have added an eminent supporter to their collective voice: singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte.

Singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte speaks during a session about a documentary on his life 'Sing Your Song' during the HBO session at the 2011 Summer Television Critics Association Cable Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California July 28, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Belafonte, 84, who chronicles his activism in the U.S. civil rights movement and beyond in his new book and in a documentary, is pleased that a new generation is carrying on his legacy of agitating for social and political change.

“Sing Your Song”, a documentary about Belafonte’s life and activism, was shown at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and airs on Monday on HBO. It comes on the heels of his memoir, “My Song”, which hit shelves last week.

Though he became the first artist with a gold album and has starred in movies alongside the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Collins and Sidney Poitier, Belafonte’s “song” began on a difficult note.

Growing up in Harlem and spending time in his mother’s home country of Jamaica, he was surrounded by poverty. But the challenges of his early life helped inspire Belafonte’s activist passions.

“I was born into a world that was absent of social justice,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“I watched my mother as an immigrant woman struggle to make ends meet. I learned that I should never let injustice dominate my life.”

The lesson would serve him well. Even as his star rose in the entertainment world, Belafonte was regularly confronted with overt racism from concert venues and media outlets, as well as from his own government and fellow citizens.

Despite being a Las Vegas headliner, he was told he could not stay in the same accommodations as white cast mates. But Belafonte seized the opportunity by challenging discrimination in a unique way: he went swimming.

The whites-only pool cleared out when he dived in, but guests drifted back minutes later, eager to meet the singer and have their pictures taken with him.

Such peacefully resilient defiance would become a hallmark of Belafonte’s activism.

After meeting Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s, Belafonte used his star power to organize and fund larger scale activities in service of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

He worked with King to organize the 1963 March on Washington, and arranged a benefit concert featuring Nina Simone, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr. to support the “Freedom Summer” activities of 1964.

Later that year, he and Poitier braved harassment by the Klu Klux Klan to personally deliver money to Mississippi for civil rights organization SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).

“I had a choice, to use my platform to spread the word. I chose to do that,” Belafonte said. “I think all of us were concerned with violence, but the choices that we had were not that many. You can’t look at tyranny and oppression and leave it unchallenged.”

Decades later, Belafonte remains active in social justice causes.

In “My Song”, he reflects on the dearth of young activists, but said he is heartened by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which he sees as connected to the Arab Spring uprisings.

“The world still suffers from a lot of inequities and absence of opportunity for so many people,” he said.

“I’m very encouraged by what young people are doing, and I think that the examples that we set with our own lives in the past have been a good measure for young people to begin to evaluate their own lives.”

But Belafonte advises protesters to remain peaceful and persistent, citing the effectiveness of his own activism.

“I don’t think we have the right to do anything but speak out against injustice,” he said. “We may think we have a right to be indifferent, to do nothing, but ultimately there’s a terrible price to be paid for that.”

Editing by Chris Michaud

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