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Harry Belafonte Says America "Blinked" in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement

February 12, 2014

"Here in America we seem to have lost our appetite for radical thinking (and) for radical discourse," legendary entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte said at DePauw University tonight.  One of the most successful African American pop stars in history and as a star of movies, Belafonte was on campus to deliver the Johnson-Wright Lecture in Conflict Studies to Honor Russell J. Compton.

"In the time that I have lived and have grown up, radicalism was so central to my daily existence that the absence of it becomes quite glaring," Belafonte told the audience gathered in Kresge Auditorium.  "And we live in a time when I think radical thought is more necessary than ever."

Belafonte, who turns 87 on March 1, was a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has been actively involved in the civil rights movement and humanitarian causes throughout his life. The driving force behind the 1985 "We Are the World" project to help people affected by war, drought, and famine in Africa, Belafonte has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 1987.

"In the black community that I grew up in, radical thinking and radical acts were part of our liberation," he explained.  "So well we succeeded in our efforts that the harvest that came out of that struggle also turned out to be devilous.  Because what happened was that while many of us who made our commitment to that struggle realized great victories -- we found ourselves now with the right to vote, with the right to equal opportunity or what we thought was equal opportunity -- that in this victory and in this harvest we blinked."

Belafonte continued, "The generation that we lived (in) did our work honorably.  We paid a price for it, but it was a price we were prepared to pay.  We made our commitment to that fact.  What we did not know was that the generation that would come after us would be so busy reaping the benefits of the harvest, that they let the struggle go fallow; they let it lose its direction."

Harry Belafonte's long list of awards for his social justice work includes the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize, the inaugural Nelson Mandela Courage Award, Africare's Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, the BET Humanitarian Award, and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal. He previously visited DePauw on September 7, 2002, to present a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture.

"I am somewhat concerned that the loss of moral leadership most defines who we are and what we do," Belafonte asserted.  "When we voted for Barack Obama, the promise was huge," he added, but he believes America "has moved into a deeper and a darker place." Belafonte thought the nation's first African American president would bring to the nation "a new set of values, a new discourse, a way for us to look at one another that we've never had before.  But that is not the case.  The case is that we are still killing each other, unemployment is rampant," and, according to Belafonte, "the laws that were the most unjust continue to prevail," including the Homeland Security Act.

Through the Compton Lecture Series, which was inaugurated in 2011, the conflict studies department at DePauw aims to create dialogue on campus while remembering the legacy of Dr. Compton, who taught religion and philosophy at the University from 1951 until 1974 and remained a presence on campus until his passing in 2007 at age 98.

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