Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

Save the Country!

In our hearts, we know what’s wrong, and we know that it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the money that flows into political campaigns, the revolving door between industry and agencies that should be regulating without industry influence, the political bashing that obscures the real issues, the real reasons why our food is unsafe, our cellphones were never properly tested to assure that they do not produce cancer, why our financial system collapsed, why the jobs went away and people lost their houses while the big banks and the big car companies somehow made out okay.

Sometimes, it takes a smart professor to parse the issues, and present them in a way that makes logical sense. Here, the professor is Lawrence Lessig, well-known for his work in the synchronization of copyright issues with the realities of new technologies. Lessig has shifted focus. In his new book, Republic, Lost, Lessig explains how and why we have accomplished the decimation of our democracy, and what we ought to do about it. This is not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a book about economics, foolish decisions, and fundamental thinking about what a country ought to do, ought to be.

The fundamental problem is relatively simple. Special interest groups, including big companies, big industries, unions, and others with vast money to spend, now control the agenda, and the decisions, made by our legislators. This is accomplished by funding political campaigns that now cost so much money, candidates are unable to raise the funds in any other way. Money is distributed not as bribes, but within a “gift economy,” in which lobbyists control the flow of funds, favors, and even the words in legislation that few legislators ever manage to read before voting. The size of this gift economy is spectacular in its size and influence, resulting in a sustained distraction for even the best-intentioned legislators whose time and decision-making processes are, according to Lessig, dominated by this system.

Where Lessig is clear about what the problem is, why and how it has gobbled up our representative form of government, and how much money is involved, he is less wonderful when it comes to solutions (which is to say, Lessig is clear thinking and often quite brilliant in his assessment of the current situation, but even his big brain struggles with what the heck we should do now). Still, he does present several seemingly sensible ideas.

Of course, the first solution is the simplest: let’s eliminate large contributions, and instead, share the burden with many small contributions. (In this regard, Obama had the right idea.) The Grant and Franklin project would allow each person in the U.S. to contribute $50 (Grant) of their Federal taxes plus $100 (Franklin) more to one or more individual candidates, or to their favorite political party. No more PAC or political party funding–candidates can receive a maximum of $150 per person. Here’s the kicker: for candidates, this would be voluntary. That is, each individual candidate would decide to follow the Grant and Franklin path–and those who do not, well, the American people would know who they are. Lessig: “If a substantial number of candidates opted into this system, then no one could believe that money was buying results.”

Then, the “clever lawyer” part of Lessig kicks in with an idea that’s intriguing, if not altogether practical (why should we rely upon practical ideas?–this is nation built by dreamers!). Lessig again: “Here’s a quiz. What’s required to be elected to the House of Representatives? You’d think that one requirement is that you be a resident of the district from which you’re to be elected. All the Constitution requires is that at the time fo the election, you be ‘an inhabitant of that State in which you shall be chosen'” And with that, Lessig is off and running…

Why not, he asks, run one candidate in several districts with a flash of anarchy in his or her midst. The only reason he or she is running is to force the other candidate to “publicly commit” to the Grant and Franklin approach. And for those candidates who do manage to get elected (inevitably, some will), he or she commits to: holding the government hostage until Congress enacts a program to remove the fundamental corruption that is now the rule in our government, and once that program is enacted, he or she will resign from office.

Lessig goes further: he wants a constitutional amendment.  Here, he enters a deeply analytical, harshly critical approach to his own idea, using his legal powers to define a path that could make an amendment possible. And, he reckons, some rich and powerful people are likely to come along for the ride.

He’s better on describing the cause and current situation than he is on prescribing the proper solution, but it’s unreasonable to expect one person, however smart, well-educated and clever, to define a plan to rebuild the republic. But he has taken the first step: he has clearly detailed the current situation and analyzed it in ways that break through any specific political dogma or belief system or party affiliation. And I know that his thinking has affected my thinking, and, presumably, some tens of thousands of other people’s thinking, and that’s a start.

So here’s the question from my side: I buy the analysis, and I want to be part of the solution. My starting place follows Lessig’s suggestion: I need to spend some time visiting a few websites, and figure out how I might insert myself into the process. His suggested websites:

Call a Convention

Public Citizen

Voters First Pledge

Fund for the Republic


BTW: The publisher is Twelve Publishers. It’s an imprint of Hachette, a larger publisher, but Twelve is delivering on a small, powerful idea: publish a dozen important books each year.  And make them count. I like their approach enough to include it here:

  1. Each book will enliven the national conversation.
  2. Each book will be singular in voice, authority, or subject matter.
  3. Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
  4. Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
  5. Each book will be nationally advertised.
  6. Each book will have a national publicity campaign.
  7. Each book will have a digital strategy.
  8. Each book will be worthy of the attention of discerning book reviewers.
  9. Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
  10. Each book will be marketed and distributed by the Hachette Book Group, the company with the best hit ratio in the American publishing business.
  11. Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
  12. Each book will matter.
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