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Remembering Harry Belafonte’s Commitment to Social Activism: ‘This Is a Pure Legacy’

Harry Belafonte, who died Tuesday, first crossed paths with Dr. Irwin Redlener, the healthcare reform activist who cofounded Children’s Health Fund, in boardroom meetings for USA for Africa during the mid-Eighties. Belafonte had gotten the idea for the organization after seeing how Band Aid’s 1984 recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised awareness about the Ethiopian famine, and launched a similar humanitarian effort that included the all-star song “We Are the World,” Hands Across America, and the disbursement of some $100,000,000 over the past 35 years to provide famine and poverty relief across the African continent.

Belafonte and Dr. Redlener, who served as Medical Director and Director of France for USA for Africa, became friends. In 1985, when the two of them embarked with a group of other organization members on a trip to Ethiopia, they witnessed the need of the African people firsthand. And when USA for Africa board members overruled some of Dr. Redlener’s choices for which organizations should receive their donations, Belafonte stuck up for him. They were both moved by what they saw in Ethiopia and stayed in touch for decades after the trip, meeting for the occasional Manhattan lunch to catch up and talk about activism.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dr. Redlener parses the legacy Belafonte leaves behind and describes the impact that the singer, actor, and activist had on him, both as a friend and a humanitarian. “To me personally, he was a role model, and an inspiring individual who was very important to my own identity as a social activist,” Dr. Redlener says. “And I know I’m not the only one on this planet who can say that.”

Spending time with Harry was always this combination of frustration with social injustice, a very wry sense of humor, a level of irreverence for the establishment, and cynicism about what the government was actually capable of doing. On the other hand, you were never surprised that he had an optimism about social change that allowed him to stick with social activism until very, very late in his life.

I went with Harry and a few other people from the organization to Ethiopia, where we visited these remote villages that had been overtaken by drought and famine. Harry’s ability to relate to people in every conceivable circumstance was remarkable. I’m a pediatrician, and I’ve been working my entire life with populations in adversity, so I’m not a stranger to interacting with people who are suffering from adversity. But Harry was such a natural communicator. He was also brilliant and really hysterically funny.

In the last couple days of our trip, we flew by helicopter to a remote village in northern Ethiopia to witness the UK’s Royal Air Force make a drop of these 50-pound sacks of grain in a field. In the briefing beforehand, the RAF told us that these bags were designed to break open when they hit the ground so that nobody could take a full 50 pounds’ worth; people would take a portion for themselves and their families. So the airplane flies low, drops the bags, they break open, and people scurry out with scoopers and pots to get the grain. There was a single policeman in this village who was very elderly, with an old World War One rifle, who tried to keep the chaos under control. We watched all of this.

When we left Ethiopia to go home, we stopped in Nairobi and visited one of the major TV broadcast studios, which said there were camera crews from NBC, CBS, and ABC there. They said, “Would you like to see the coverage from the three networks that were at the event where the grain was dropped?” And we said, “Sure.” So Harry and I are sitting there, and the three networks covered the story dramatically differently. One network reported what happened accurately. Another had a story about how the bags were defective and broke open when they hit the ground — and yet the TV network had been told in advance that bags were supposed to break open. And another one said, “The Ethiopian army tried to break up people getting grain.” Harry just watched this and said [wryly], “What the fuck.” It was just a hysterical moment.

But Harry was always good for honesty, strength, and a laugh. Even when he lost his vision the last few years, I spoke to him as often as I could. He remained upbeat and interested in what was going on in the world until the end.

A few years ago, we went out to lunch at the Viand diner near the Beacon Theater in New York City. He was railing about the fact that there wasn’t a new generation of young, Black activists who came from the entertainment and celebrity committee like he did. He fully expected that generation after generation would follow him and take the lead in fighting for social change. And he was deeply disappointed with young, Black celebrities, trying to get them involved in dealing with the kind of large-scale causes that had motivated him throughout his life.

He had always been generous with his time and his money. He was one of the principal people who would bail out Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists when they would get arrested during the Civil Rights Movement. He put himself on the line. He and Joan Baez stand out as phenomenally well-known, highly regarded, and influential celebrities who never cared whether their activism would affect their public support for their art.

Harry was also a purist. He believed strongly in social justice. It was no bullshit with him. He was clear about it. He was outspoken. He was active. He was committed. And at the same time, he was beloved by the public globally. His career as a musical artist and as an actor speaks for itself. He had a kind of courage that is really rare in his business.

In 1987, Paul Simon, [my wife] Karen, and I started an organization called Children’s Health Fund, where we developed healthcare programs for homeless and indigent children around the country. Harry was very interested in the Children’s Health Fund and actually came to a gala in 2016 where we honored David Dinkins, Morgan Freeman, and him. It was an extraordinary evening, and Harry spoke with extraordinary eloquence on the continued powerful, overwhelming presence of poverty and racism in America.


There are plenty of people who are doing what needs to be done right now in the world, but then there are people who set a precedent, who set an example, people who are pioneers who show a roadmap for how to function responsibly in society. And Harry was just one of those Americans who will remain a pioneering figure in the Civil Rights Movement and social activism in general. He never let go. People that are genuinely committed never let go; they don’t retire in that sense. They stop singing and acting, but there is no retirement for Harry Belafonte’s type of activism.

This is a pure legacy. There are not that many people who leave that kind of legacy. People like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., who were stopped in their tracks by political, racist assassinations, never got to fulfill their destiny. Harry was one of those people who lived a long and amazing life of contributions across the board. He was an astounding entertainer and a role model in social activism.

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