Politics & Policy

The Miseducation of Harry Belafonte

Day light come and I want to set the record straight.

Only a short time before the Katrina devastation and subsequent racial hysteria hit landfall, during a “Keep the Vote Alive” march in Atlanta, renowned singer Harry Belafonte made some pretty strong comments about African Americans who identify themselves with a conservative political philosophy and agenda. According to media reports, he called them “tyrants,” and went on to make an amazing comparison involving Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich,” said Belafonte. “Color does not necessarily denote quality, content, or value.”

Now, you don’t need to know all that much about history to know that there were, in fact, no Jews in the upper echelons of the Third Reich–so when people make comments like Belafonte’s, there has obviously been some serious miseducation going on. What happened to Belafonte?

Harry Belafonte started his political activism in the 1960s, as a prominent leader in the civil-rights movement; he was one of its major financial backers, and persuaded other celebrities to contribute as well. More recently, he has become a recognized global humanitarian, supporting Africare and other organizations that work to relieve the abject living conditions of the poor. He has participated in several undeniably noble causes.

Along the way, though, he has accumulated a plethora of misinformation; in short, he knows less than he thinks he knows. (National Review Online’s own Victor Davis Hanson has accurately described how this syndrome has affected other celebrities: “Entertainers wrongly assume that their fame, money, and influence arise from broad knowledge rather than natural talent, looks, or mastery of a narrow skill.”) A more broadly educated person would situate people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the context of African-American conservative achievement. Frederick Douglass, for example, was a Republican, and defended Republican principles throughout his professional career–as marshal (1877-1881), recorder of deeds (1881-1886) for the District of Columbia, and minister to Haiti (1889-1891). He influenced Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation, and is a key figure in the history of civil rights in America. Would Harry Belafonte like to blast him, too, for being a Republican?

And does Belafonte know that when the Civil Rights Act–the most important modern civil-rights legislation–was passed, a greater proportion of House Republicans than House Democrats voted for it? As one writer has pointed out, “Without Republicans the bill would have failed.”

What Belafonte needs to know is that the Republican party of George W. Bush is in the Lincoln tradition: a party that strongly favors civil rights and racial equality. If more people understood this, Democrats would be right to fear a major shift in U.S. politics, the return of African Americans to the party of Lincoln and Douglass. Harry Belafonte has a great opportunity up in the bully pulpit: He should use it to tell people the truth, instead of passing on to them his own unfortunate miseducation.

Reverend Joseph N. Evans serves as senior pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., one of the city’s oldest and largest predominantly African-American congregations.

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