Magazine Feature

Lifelong Social Activist Harry Belafonte on the Danger of Trump: 'America Has A Cancer That's at Work'

Sankofa co-director Raoul Roach (son of Max Roach), Harry Belafonte & Gina Belafonte
Wesley Mann

Sankofa co-director Raoul Roach (son of Max Roach), Harry Belafonte and Gina Belafonte photographed on Oct. 1 at the Many Rivers to Cross festival in Fairburn, Ga. 

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"Whenever there was a need, I would just hear Dr. King say, ‘Call Harry,’” U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tells Billboard of Harry Belafonte’s civil rights activism. In 1963, when an imprisoned King was writing “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” it was Belafonte who worked behind the scenes to raise the bail money for King and the other jailed student protesters.

In 1965, during the march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, Belafonte assembled Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone, Peter, Paul & Mary and even Leonard Bernstein on an outdoor stage, constructed of caskets from a local African-American-owned funeral home, to perform for weary marchers. Following King’s assassination, in 1968, he quietly provided for King’s family. 

In 2016, Belafonte is mobilizing a new era of artists and fans with his social justice nonprofit Sankofa, which has raised more than $1.8 million since its inception, in 2013, and its inaugural Many Rivers to Cross fundraiser. “Young people who believe that their vote doesn’t matter have misread history,” says Belafonte. Held Oct. 1 and 2 on a farm in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., the event, billed as “a festival of music, art and justice,” featured Common, John Legend, Macklemore, Santana, Dave Matthews and Public Enemy, and brought 22,000 attendees, with all proceeds benefiting the organization’s grass-roots partners that are focusing on the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice.

Today Sankofa’s work is as critical as ever, with its first festival aiming to rally the nation ahead of its presidential election. “America has a cancer that’s at work, and it’s slowly distributing itself through the national body,” says Belafonte. “There’s a million reasons to mobilize, but [now] Donald Trump has stepped into the space. It isn’t Trump the man, [it’s] the number of people who approve of him, who embrace him.”

As Belafonte readies for his 90th birthday, his daughter and Sankofa co-founder Gina Belafonte, 56, reflects on his influence. “America was born on fear and competition,” she says. “My father donated his capital to the movement, but what I’ve learned from both of my parents is that it’s about listening. Each community is different, and I’m not sure we’re all listening right now.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.