Last year, I had the honor and opportunity to interview Harry Belafonte and Carmen Perez-Jordan as part of the press run for Yoruba Richen’s The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show.
The documentary looked at Belafonte’s 1968 historic week-long hosting of The Tonight Show. By then, Johnny Carson had turned the late-night TV world on its ear by becoming one of the most powerful platforms of communication. In an unprecedented move, Belafonte took a PWI and transformed it into a multicultural and political experience.
Fifteen of his 25 guests were Black, beautiful, and proud, including the late Sidney Poitier, iconic singer Lena Horne, and civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte took over the airwaves and sparked a challenging, dynamically entertaining conversation about the issues of the day.
Fast forward to 2022, where on March 1, Mr. Belafonte turns 95-years-old. Close friends, family, and fans have come together to celebrate the living legend for his impact, light, and work in the fight against injustice and inequality. The tribute comes in the form of a song called “I Believe.”
Artists who are part of The Gathering for Justice’s two state-based task forces, Justice League NYC and CA, collaborated on the inspirational single to “uplift the call to stop the practice of child incarceration,” a cause Mr. Belafonte first championed in 2005.
“On the auspicious occasion of 95 trips around the sun,” he shared via a press release, “I am both delighted to be here and bedeviled with the idea. However, nothing could make me happier than hearing music made for this movement I love. ‘I Believe’ is a wonderful song and it fills this ‘young’ man with hope for the future,” Mr. Belafonte added. Featuring Mysonne The General, Keris Lové, Jackie Cruz, Feefa, Carmen Perez-Jordan, and Mr. Harry Belafonte himself, “I Believe” is a collaboration between powerful Black and Latino artists who believe that unity is most important to the Gathering for Justice and for their respective communities.
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In recent years, Belafonte has been in and out of the public eye, but he and CEO Carmen Perez-Jordan continue to advocate for many of today’s important civil rights issues. Both have leveraged — if not sacrificed — plenty in an effort to end and address mass incarceration, gender equity, violence prevention, racial healing, and community policing. With Belafonte, as one of Dr. King’s confidants, engaging in dangerous endeavors helped to change the way Black people were treated in America.
To speak with living Black history was a monumental moment to experience, and as we close out the annual February observance, we talk about his time on late-night TV, his and Carmen’s thoughts about the ongoing voting rights issue, and Mr. Belafonte shares his last conversation with his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This interview was originally conducted on Aug. 31, 2021. Updated on Feb. 26, 2022.
Last August, I had the opportunity to interview Harry Belafonte and Carmen Perez-Jordan as part of the press run for Yoruba Richen’s The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show.
The documentary looked at Belafonte’s 1968 historic week-long hosting of The Tonight Show. By then, Johnny Carson had turned the late-night TV world on its ear by becoming one of the most powerful communication platforms. In an unprecedented move, Belafonte took a PWI and transformed it into a multicultural and political experience.
Fifteen of his 25 guests were Black, beautiful, and proud, including the late Sidney Poitier, iconic singer Lena Horne, and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Belafonte turned what felt like Middle America on the airwaves for many people across the country into a challenging, dynamically entertaining conversation about itself and its divisiveness when dealing with the then-issues of the day.
Belafonte has been in and out of the media in recent years, but he and CEO Carmen Perez-Jordan continue to advocate for many of today’s critical civil rights issues. Both have leveraged — if not sacrificed — plenty to end and address mass incarceration, gender equity, violence prevention, racial healing, and community policing.
On what marks the 39th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day being signed into a federal holiday, Americans are still dealing with some of the exact needs today as they did in 1968. During the conversation with Perez-Jordan and Mr. Belafonte we address some of those issues as well as the importance of speaking your truth.
BET.com: What are your thoughts on the current iteration of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act? If or when it passes, how do you see this positively impacting those discriminatory laws that have been passed in Georgia and Texas?
Carmen Perez: We need federal intervention to protect our right to vote. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is necessary and incredibly important because it addresses the fundamental enforcement of voting rights, which conservative justices on the Supreme Court have recently struck down.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act successfully defended the right to vote for Black Americans who were being disenfranchised in the South. The idea that we should repeal something because it was successful defies common sense. The organized effort to deny Black and brown Americans the right to vote is the historical tactic Republicans have used to win elections and defeat progressive reforms.
BET.com: There’s a new generation of young Black men and women who are excitedly using social media to teach snackable Black history lessons to the masses. Are there any words of wisdom you can offer them as they continue to grow to ensure our stories don’t fade away?
Harry Belafonte: As a singer and an activist, I found this to be true: You can cage the singer, but you cannot cage the song. This is a very potent philosophy. The impact of art is irreversible, and I think it’s the same when young people learn their true history. You can ban the lesson plan — and across the country, we see that they are doing just that — but you can’t stop the impact of that knowledge from taking root in the minds of young people. Those who are teaching Black history in ways that reach our young people and the masses are doing critically important work.
BET.com: Earlier this year, we all gathered to celebrate Mr. Belafonte and his continued fight for equality and justice. What were some standout moments that reflect Mr. Belafonte’s legacy that will be cherished by The Gathering for Justice?
Carmen Perez: It was truly a special occasion celebrating the legacy of Mr. Belafonte and the contributions he’s made throughout his lifetime on his 94th birthday. It was beautiful. So many poured their love back into him, not only people in his generation but the young generations that revere him as well.
From Oprah and Jay-Z to Charlamagne [tha God] and Lin Manuel Miranda to movement leaders like Danny Glover, Angela Davis, and Gus Newport — we are incredibly thankful that we can give Mr. Belafonte his flowers while he is here, and continue his legacy through the work we do at The Gathering for Justice.
Mr. Belafonte and his wife, Pam, were truly touched and filled with gratitude!
BET.com: We have continued to lose individuals during encounters with the police, but there’s also been little-to-no reform to systems and practices.
What are your thoughts, Carmen, about the statements made in the wake of Ma’khia Bryant’s death? How does everyone at The Gathering for Justice decompress after speaking out against the continued injustices?
Carmen Perez: While we understand that Black and brown women who are killed at the hands of police don’t receive the same national attention and support, The Gathering for Justice believes in balancing the need to share these stories with the importance of giving people action steps to take.
We are aware that their family members, and others who were close to them, need support to raise awareness about their loved ones. And so as we cultivate the next generation of leadership, The Gathering for Justice feels it’s important to include family members and directly-impacted people in that leadership development.
Our two state-based task forces, Justice League NYC and Justice League CA, are dedicated to raising awareness and working on policy change, mass mobilization, and civil disobedience that supports these families.
BET.com: Questlove’s Summer of Soul gave Black America a heavy dose of nostalgia. Now, with Melissa Haizlip’s Mr. Soul ready to return to screens and honor the legacy of her father, Mr. Belafonte, are there any memorable moments you can recall when you were a guest on his show?
Harry Belafonte: Ellis Haizlip was an essential pioneer in media, and I was proud to participate in Mr. Soul. The original show featured his political commitment to Black culture and paved the way with dialogue and content that enabled people to do things they otherwise would not have done at that time. Ellis was an eloquent host, and he made it an easy task for the people he interviewed.
BET.com: Both young and established audiences had the pleasure of seeing you in Showtime’s The One and Only Dick Gregory. You both utilized your respective places in the entertainment industry to make clear and strong statements about race relations in America. What were conversations like between you two? Did any of them end up as executable plans in the fight to gain equity and equality for Black people?
Harry Belafonte: Certainly, Dick Gregory was one of the 1963 March on Washington organizers. We called on other celebrities and got them involved as well. We both had a thorough understanding that, since anything you say as an entertainer can be repeated, it’s important to take the risk to say what you believe… even if it costs you. At least you spoke the truth. He was a great friend and a courageous man, never afraid to bring the race issue into the conversation.
BET.com: Not too many people knew that you were one of the few substitute hosts for Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1968. The Sit-In delves into the array of guests and messages you presented during your week-long stint at the desk. From Diahann Carroll to Aretha Franklin to having Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on as guests — what was the impact of that hosting gig like for you?
Harry Belafonte: I was eternally grateful to Johnny Carson. The network didn’t want to allow it to go down, and Johnny intervened to make sure it happened. He was very supportive, and it was a positive experience. It was certainly a first for the time period, and the response from the American people was overwhelmingly positive.
BET.com: There are continued, substantial efforts to redirect President Joe Biden's attention to criminal justice reform. What is The Gathering for Justice's position on how to keep the pressure on him and his administration to push for change?
Carmen Perez: Grounded in the ideology of Dr. King, one of the Six Principles of Nonviolence we observe is: "Attack the forces of evil, not people doing evil." Understanding this enables us to comprehend that it's bigger than this administration, and we need to overhaul the whole government. Like a young John Lewis said when he spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, "Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary for us to march in the streets?"
At The Gathering for Justice, we believe in building coalitions that expand beyond traditional lines. It's how we were able to bring on 500 partners to the 2017 Women's March on Washington or 50 partners in one weekend to free Pedro Hernandez, the Bronx teenager who was wrongly imprisoned.
Working together in solidarity enables us to get what our communities need and deserve. We will continue to organize, show up, and continue to lift our voice in solidarity until this administration and Congress pay attention.
BET.com: What would be your suggestion to others,who desire to pick up the baton that Mr. Belafonte passed along to this generation?
Carmen Perez: There’s not enough that I could say about this magnificent human being who has blessed me as my mentor for the past 16 years. He’s taught me so much through his stories. He has told me about when he and Eleanor Roosevelt worked together to commission the program that brought students from Africa to U.S. colleges, including a young Barack Obama, Sr.
As we carry on the tradition of our elders, we must pass the baton on to the youth. Mr. B shared his role of being a “fireman,” words he was told in a conversation with Dr. King. I feel that my role is to be a bridge-builder between the youth and the elders, as well as being a gardener, to continue to plant the seeds of movement and water them as they grow. Mr. Belafonte says, “The seeds of our past become the fruits of our future.”
Throughout it all, he has continually emphasized the importance of being laser-focused on building the movement for liberation, of not letting anything else get in your way. Picking up that baton doesn’t require the fame or money that he had through his music career — it just requires the commitment, patience and faith to stay the course and continue to organize, strategize and win victories.
Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.