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So Long Julie: May bands of Angels sing and dance you to your rest

Julie Belafonte (seated), Dr. Betty Shabazz at the podium, Rev. Dr. Karen Daughtry, Winnie Mandela (seated) Weusi Imam, Chief of Security (standing), Michael Amon-ra Chief of Staff for the National Black United Front and we supplied the security. (Standing near front)

After reading Gina Belafonte's profoundly moving tribute to her mother Julie Belafonte it conjured up delightful memories of my interaction with Julie. I've gotten to know Julie very very well during Nelson and Winnie Mandela's first visit to the United States, in particular New York City. My wife, Dr. Karen Daughtry and Julie were co-chairpersons of the Women's section of the Welcoming Committee.

I had known Harry for a long long time, at least, I first met him back in the mid 1940s. He was singing at BirdLand in Manhattan, the famous nightspot. It was where all the great musicians would display their artistic skills. I was too young to enter, I had to be 16, however my elders who considered me a young man with promise, in all the negative things of life, would sneak me in. And across the years, I've gotten to know Harry not only in his artistic role but also as an activist. I liked Harry very much. He was as everyone knows a superlative artist but equally he was an activist doing and going wherever there was a struggle for freedom and for human rights. What I really admired about him was that though he was internationally known and moved at the highest circles of human achievements. At the same time he was always available for the injustices on the street. He was active in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn where Yusuf Hawkins was killed and Reverend Sharpton led the organizing. Harry had called a meeting with all of the leaders both Black and white, in an attempt to bring peace and unity.

On another occasion when a young man named Dontae Johnson was shot by the police in the Bronx. His mother had mentioned that as a result of the police bullets, her son was unconscious in the hospital. When I visited Dontae in the hospital, and continued to visit and to pray for him and his family. I discovered they had roots in Jamaica, West Indies. I thought that it would be a wonderful gesture if Harry would visit the hospital and meet with Dontae and his mother. When I made the request to him, he readily agreed. He visited and spent considerable time at the hospital. I am sure that it helped Dontae's recovery.

And of course Harry was active in the civil rights movement as well as international liberation struggles, especially in South Africa. So, after years of marching, rallying, demonstrating and civil disobedience, screaming, advocating, arguing in the free South Africa/Free Mandela Movement -- Nelson was finally freed. 

A welcoming Committee was formed in NY to receive Nelson and Winnie's and their entourage. Harry Belafonte, Bill Lynch (Mayor David Dinkins Chief of Staff), Jim Bell (Black Union Leader) and I , Dr. William Howard, religious leader and I were among the welcoming committee and as I stated, Julie and my wife headed the Women's section which included Hazel Dukes, President of NAACP; Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X; Virginia Fields, Organizer; . You can well imagine the internal tension on getting the Mandela's to various places, near and dear to the hearts and minds of members of the committee. In other words, everyone wanted the Mandelas' at his/her venue or favorite meeting place.  

In the women section there was no tension. When the request came for Winnie Mandela to speak at the House of the Lord Church, there was a unanimous vote on the proposition. So Julie and my wife went about their organizing and programming with consummate skills and sensitivity. I remember Julie, always so gentle and her movements were of artistry in action. But behind that ready smile and soft tones there came through a woman who could be tough when the occasion demanded. She and my wife like the proverbial "two peas in a pod", together they were the perfect pair. 

When they requested Winnie come to the church, the Mandela delegation put forth one stipulation, they didn't want Winnie to speak. This demand triggered a furious rejection, both Julie and my wife insisted that Winnie come to the church with no strings attached and these two lionesses had their way. Not even the tough, fearless, freedom fighters of South Africa could withstand the insistence of Dr. Karen and Mrs. Belafonte. They not only organized Winnie's presence at the church and did a great job putting together a rather impressive program. 

The only rule or part Harry and I played was throughout the program, whenever there was a pause we would shout, "Keep the Pressure on" and the audience would respond. There was this thunderous reverberation"Keep the Pressure on","Keep the Pressure on". Harry and I stood in the balcony, shouting, "Keep the Pressure on", "Keep the Pressure on".  At the time the government of South Africa and Nelson Mandela's organization African National Congress were negotiating the transference of power.

As I stated, in addition Julie and my wife organized the program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They knew that the church would be too small to invite everybody to Winnie's visit. So to the church, they invited leadership, primarily women leaders. Then graciously they invited the leadership of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to be a part of Winnie Mandela's visit. They organized how everyone could come to the program at BAM. And they had the leadership of the Academy to pretty much have their way with the program. At both places, the House of the Lord Church and BAM was standing room only and the program itself was superbly arranged without a misstep or a blunder. Everyone was perfect in her/his role. Primarily, almost exclusively it was Julie and my wife's handiwork. They put it all together.

There wereseveral other times I was in the presence of Julie. My wife and I were visitors at their apartment in Manhattan. We sat for long hours listening to Harry relate his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, especially with Dr. MLK Jr. Julie would talk of her travels and experiences at the various dance groups and events. It so happened that in the Caribbean island where Harry, Julie and their family home in the very island that was the favorite place of my wife and I.  So we would drop in and spend time with Julie and Harry talking about "the good old days" riding around the island. Always, Julie was the perfect host. Harry called us "their new best friends". Julie  had a personality that made everyone feel comfortable. Though she was an international celebrity, known worldwide for her artistic genius, especially her dancing. But there was never any ostentatious or "look at me I'm Julie Belafonte". She would talk to or interact with anyone who happened to be present or around her at the time. It was the joy of a lifetime watching my wife and Julie interacting together thinking, planning, etc.

When the Mandela's left for their next stop I guess it was a toss-up as to whether we were sorry to see them leave or sorry that the role Julie and my wife had played was no longer necessary. But a life-long friendship evolved and we will always remember the gentle lady, with so much class, compassion and love for her family, especially Harry, the love for the people. And she loved the work she was doing, contributing to make the world a better place.  So long Julie, it is easy for some of us to believe in the great mansions above, where heavenly choirs sing, but they needed a dancer and I you are the perfect person Julie.

Get your copy of my latest book Passing of the Giants of the Human Spirit via Amazon. See Link: Harry and Julie Belafonte will be included in Volume II of the Passing of Giants.


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