Harry Belafonte, “Martin Luther King: Harry Belafonte remembers ‘I Have a Dream’,” The Observer, 11 August 2013
There is one thing I have to say about the speech, though, and I say it when I am called on to speak about Dr King to students all over America. I tell them: you need to study the whole speech because the text before the “I Have a Dream” part is a deeper reflection of what he was striving for. The details and the passion of the struggle are spelt out in the preceding passages.
The spirit that Dr King called forth was a profoundly American spirit, as was his struggle. What made me feel so good about that struggle was that it was ordinary people who were becoming empowered through his words, to realise their own possibilities.
Much of my political outlook was already in place when I encountered Dr King. I was well on my way and utterly committed to the civil rights struggle. I came to him with expectations and he affirmed them. Like many black American men of my generation, I had lived through two defining moments: I had been born into the Great Depression and I had fought for America against the Nazis in the second world war.
To then come back to an America where black people were denied their basic rights as citizens was to come back to a so-called democracy where political evils still taunted us. Then we looked around us and saw that England, Belgium, France, the great colonisers, were hanging on to their colonies even after the second world war. I believe to this day that it was that experience that underpinned the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in America. We had to take on the challenge, fight these injustices, these evils.
Dr King’s legacy is a great one, but I have to say too that American schools have been shoddy in addressing it. It is simply not taught. Why? Because reactionary America is still trying to deny that hope and that achievement. Our legacy has been under severe attack by the rule makers, Congress, our courts and our judges, all of whom want to consign us to history and simultaneously undermine the struggles of today.
That is why I sometimes say in my speeches that we have to stop this deification of Dr King and look at him as an ordinary man who empowered himself and others through politics and activism. Look at the details of his struggle: the strategy, the speeches, the mind, the intellect. Then you can begin to understand how an ordinary man is empowered to find himself. Who was Martin Luther King before he was Dr Martin Luther King? He came from somewhere and that somewhere was the same hardship and struggle to survive of many of his followers. He had the same fears and hopes and anxieties and aspirations. To deify him is, in a way, to reduce his achievement and to remove the radicalism from it. I would counsel against that and argue for a real reappraisal of his achievements, which were of the highest order. …
There is a new challenge now and a more complex one. Part of the dilemma is that, as Americans, we have talked ourselves into still believing in the nobility that America supposedly represents. But, the truth is that, right now, we are more villainous than we are righteous. For the moment, we cannot accept that. Black people are still bearing the brunt of that villainy, but today, the prism through which we must view the struggle is not just race, it is gender, it is economics, it is human rights, it is the growth of powerful elites and populist rightwing movements that seek to undermine American democracy while peddling their version of America the great.
But there is also a new passion for struggle on the horizon. People have once again had enough. Americans are opening their eyes to those in America who work tenaciously to keep America in this state of aggression and hostility and obsession with being number one. There is a cruelty about America and American politics and society that dumbfounds me. But there is also change in the air. In my experience, when people feel they have had enough, activism grows and, from activism, comes change. …
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