The above title was what Black people in America knew Paul Robeson, who was one of the greatest among the greats. Well, I guess there would be a friendly controversy surrounding who was the tallest tree in the forest. It is highly commendable to be a tree of any size in the forest but the tallest tree, I guess it depends upon the relatives, friends, supporters, and comrades’ opinions.
City Hall steps on the occasion of Mandela’s visit to New York,
Left to right: Harry Belafonte, Bishop Desmond TuTu, his wife Leah TuTu. I’m standing, on my way to my seat.
In the office with my wife, Dr. Karen Daughtry, Harry Belafonte, Nelson Mandela.
The March to Free South Africa; Free Mandela: from left to right: Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player. David Nyaba, South Africa Representative. Harry Belafonte, Harriet Machel, President, NY Urban League, myself, Council Member Charles Barron.
Surely there would be those who would say that Harry Belafonte was the tallest tree in the forest, especially among performing artists. Whether we choose Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis and others, I know that there will be those who offer their favorite tree and it's all good. What they did encouraged us to use our talents, skills, resources, whatever we are blessed to have in the cause to advance our people in particular and to make the world a better place for all the human family.
I first heard of Harry when I was around 15 or 16 years of age back in the late 1940s. We saw him at Birdland, the famous jazz night spot. My elders used to sneak me into the club. They thought I showed promise and they wanted to take credit for my development. Showing promise didn't mean I was headed in the right direction; they had another concept of showing promise. In any event, it was there we first saw and heard Harry Belafonte. The information in the Jersey City community, where I lived at the time, was that there was a CAT named Belafonte, we had problems trying to say his name, this CAT could whale. (CAT in those days was what we called our friends, today we call them dogs. I hope no one asks me why we use the animal creatures to describe us. Whale meant exceptional). Harry Belafonte was a Whaling Cat! That's the highest compliment we could pay him.
As the years went by, I got to meet him, and increasingly my admiration for him kept pace with his popularity derived from combining his humanitarianism, his participation in the struggle for human rights and self-determination, and his artistic brilliance. And then we got to participate in different struggles around various issues.
There was a lot of concern about violence in the community. Harry Belafonte had some connection with Governor Cuomo. I think he was Governor Cuomo’s troubleshooter. When Yusuf Hawkins was killed in 1989, we organized many marches into Bensonhurst Brooklyn. The Reverend Al Sharpton led the marches that were tension packed. Many people felt we were walking on a powder keg. Anything and/or another act of violence would have caused an explosion that would spread throughout New York and maybe the nation.
Belafonte came out to the community and convened leaders both Black and White in a round table discussion regarding violence, unity, and resources to improve the community and what wonderful things we could do together. He exuded compassion, concern, and respect for the issues as well as the people involved. Also, he had concern for the future that racial violence was going to accelerate and we had an opportunity to set an example of communities working together.
A young teenager named Dante Johnson was shot by the police in the Bronx. He laid in a coma for weeks. I visited him regularly with his mother and prayed with him, friends and relatives and prayed for him and his family. I later learned that Harry Belafonte was a hero to the family. I got in touch with Harry Belafonte and asked him if he would visit Dante. He readily gave an affirmative answer. He visited Dante in Lincoln hospital while he was still in a coma. Dante later recovered. I am sure that it was God's doing to bring healing to this young man and I am also sure that Harry Belafonte played a part. Harry had something to say about police brutality and killings. He was very critical of the behavior of the police in the black and brown communities in particular.
Thus, we see a side of Harry Belafonte that maybe only a few of his countless admirers knew; his concern at the community level – the concern “for the LEAST of us in society.” He was the personification of the poets’ words “he could walk among Kings and keep the common touch.”
On the national stage Harry was an indispensable participant in the civil rights movement. We all know of his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We all know that he marched with MLK and raised huge sums of money to support the movement and particularly, Dr. King.
When Dr. King Jr. was jailed and needed money, Harry spearheaded the raising of huge sums of money. I am straining to keep from telling you the people that he touched and how much they gave and how they gave it. Suffice it to say he exerted all of his influence and put astronomical sums of money at the disposal of Dr. MLK Jr.
On the international scene we work closely on the Free South Africa, Free Mandela global movement. When we succeeded in helping Mandela’s release, a New York welcoming committee was put together. My wife, Dr. Karen Daughtry and Mrs. Julie Belafonte, Harry Belafonte's wife, was the Co-chairs of the Women's Division of the Welcoming Committee.
Harry and I spent many days planning, strategizing, rehearsing and discussing the movement. My wife and I were invited on occasion to their Manhattan home and to his home abroad. We spent the time reminiscing, reflection.
He told me many stories about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders and events of the Civil Rights movement. One in particular that stands out in my mind, maybe because it was near the death of Dr. King. He said that while Dr. King was sitting in his (Harry) home in New York, he noticed that Dr. King developed a nervous twitch. He stated that Dr. King was under tremendous pressure. The next time Harry saw him, Dr. King was calm, calm and serene. He asked Dr. King what had happened and why there was no more nervous twitch. Dr. King stated that he felt a peace within his spirit. It was not long after that that Dr. King made his last speech in Memphis.
In this speech you remember Dr. King said, “I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. But we as a people will make it to the Promised Land.”
During the visit of Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Mandela and the African Congress delegation, Harry Belafonte was at our church many times. The last time we were standing in the back of the sanctuary while Dr. Karen and Ms. Julie were conducting service in the pulpit, we shouted from the back of the church,” keep the pressure on, keep the pressure on, keep the pressure on .” We had reference to the negotiations going on in South Africa with the President Frederik William de Klerk and his administration regarding the transference of power. We marched and rallied together many times in many places.
When Winnie Mandela made her first public speech at the House of the Lord Church, she said, “if the negotiation falls apart she will be the first one back in the bush.”
We loved Harry Belafonte very much. He had a love for people that was comprehensive and that reached all levels of society. He had a passion for peace and a passion to change the world which drove him to expend endless time, boundless energy, superlative talent and astronomical resources of his own and what he could raise in humanitarian enterprises, world peace, and global human rights. He was the personification of selfless service.
I remember when we honored Paul Robeson; the family requested Harry Belafonte to help organize the celebrities and the community. Harry called me and asked if I would gather the community to attend the Paul Robeson celebration. I did as any of us who loved Harry would do if he asked us. For we knew it was for some cause or other people. But even if it were for Harry Belafonte we would do whatever he asked of us. We had a great celebration that night by one of the tallest trees in the forest orchestrated by another tall trees in the forest.
We will miss him. The world will not quite seem the same with Harry Belafonte gone from among us. But thank God, death does not make a final end. We are still in the month of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who promised us that we will be with him in his eternal mansions and there will be no more death.
So long old friend, we will remember you and we will miss you, but we will carry on until our day comes and we will meet together in the grand and glorious reunion.
To the Belafonte family, from my family, Church and Community of Faithfuls send our love, condolences, our constant prayers and ready service even as Harry loved and served us.