Harry Belafonte & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1990, after his release from Robbin Island prison, JFREJ was the only Jewish group to organize an event — a shabbat featuring civil rights heros — welcoming Nelson Mandela to NYC. On the day we learned of his passing, we are honored to share the speech Harry Belafonte made at that celebration. They are as powerful and instructive today as they were then. May his memory be for a blessing.

Remarks by Harry Belafonte, Co-Chair, Nelson Mandela New York Welcoming Committee

I am here this evening because we are all in need of one another. We are more in need of one another, I think, than we have ever been in need of one another before. And in that spirit you have opened up your holiest of places and have extended the invitation for us to come and to speak and to understand and to be supportive of our commonality.

Nelson Mandela, in the 27-1/2 years he spent in prison, had a lot of time to think. When he came out of prison, lots of what he had thought about began to express itself to those who could view him, many for the first time in their lives. He brought to his own community and to the world a sense of hope, a sense of love, a sense of redemption, and a sense of commonality. He has never once spoken a harsh word since he has walked out of that prison.

The many to whom I have spoken, who shared with him the years he was in prison, never heard him speak a hard word then.

This spirit that brings an opportunity to come together will be visited to this country next week Wednesday. I cannot think of a journey that I have ever traveled in the search for human rights, in the search for human dignity, in the search for justice, where there was not a Jewish presence. I have never been in the quest for freedom of black people in this country, or for black people in other countries, I have never been the pursuit of justice for the peoples of Latin America and Asia, and never somewhere in there find a Jewish presence. I too walked from Selma to Montgomery. In that march there was a Jewish presence. In Mississippi, two young men who were Jews gave their lives for our cause. When history speaks the full and detailed text of the history of Martin Luther King, it will tell you that one of the most trusted people in his life was a Jew by the name of Stan Levinson.

And it is in that spirit that when I look at the anti-semitism that runs rampant in the world, all throughout Europe, new forms of it in Asia, throughout places in Latin America, and here in our own United States, I feel the desperate need for us to come together. When I look at the racism that is rampant against people of color throughout Europe, throughout parts of Asia, and here in this United States, I know it is time to come together, and I know that there is no greater an alliance than when Jews and blacks stand together. We have never ever stepped away from the confrontation with tyranny and oppression where we have not been victorious.

The black people of this country are in a desperate state. Their state of desperation is not by choice. I know no one who is poor by choice. I know no one who is ignorant by choice. There are moments within our lives as black people in this country and in this city where we wonder what has happened to our cause. Did it die when the bullet snuffed out the life of Martin Luther King? Instead of moving into a world that is healed by that passing we are living in circumstances that are in many ways more desperate than before.

And when the word arrived that Nelson Mandela was coming to this country, millions of people in this country who have not yet settled the score of racism, millions of people who live excluded from the political system, saw once again the chance of hope and expression for their grievance because Nelson Mandela, who shares the same struggle, comes to them almost as a Messiah.

When, sitting in the organization of his presence here, and working on the details of his visit in all eight cities and the eleven days he will be here, when speaking to the security forces, the secret police from the State Department, I was told that there was deep concern for his safety, and they rattled off a number of reasons why they held that concern; and one in particular stood out for me when they said, "there are segments of the Jewish community that find his presence in this country unwelcome, and they will make their feelings heard, and we are concerned about that because one group in particular has been noted for its willingness to do violence." That struck me very, very deeply. And I said, "The Constitution of our country gives us the right to express our feelings, to protest; as a matter of fact, one of its noblest reasons for existing is to give room for the dissenter to be heard. So that should not be taken away. But I am concerned that in a time when racism is rampant, in a time when anti-semitism is rampant, these two groups in particular must not be split apart any further and be put upon in a way that would rip us apart in a way that would not be healed in this century.

And I then thought about it, discussed it with my colleagues, and I reached out to my Jewish brothers and I told them what I had heard, and I told them what I had felt, and I begged their intervention, because without another voice, without another presence, if there was only one side of the Jewish community to be heard from, our nation could very easily be ripped apart.

Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his wife Winnie, addressed the crowd at Kennedy airport in 1990. Harry Belafonte at far right. Mayor David Dinkins gave a thumbs-up sign, while Jesse Jackson looked on behind him. To the right of Mandela were Gov. Mario Cuomo. Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Long after Nelson Mandela has left, we will be left with each other, and in that request that was extended, my Jewish brothers asked many questions of me. And I said to them, "I am not the one that you should be hearing -what you need to hear in order to be able to express to that community unequivocally. I suggest that you speak among yourselves and if you find it propitious, please go and meet with Nelson Mandela with no intervention, with none of us in your group, with no one to counsel you, with no one to give you shadings. Go among your own and sit with Nelson Mandela and hear what he has to say. Do not have it interpreted to you. Do not listen to rumor. Do not read a text that comes from somewhere else and derive a conclusion. Go yourselves. And when you come back, you will then have the opportunity to join the ranks of the protestors because you believe his presence has no place in our America or you can join the ranks of those that Nelson Mandela speaks for all the peoples of this globe who are facing oppression, facing racism, facing anti-semitism, and know that we must come together."

That was no risk for me. I knew that a healing was on the way. But I am eternally grateful to you and to your five other representatives who went to Geneva and met with Nelson Mandela, because you helped to put America on course, because what you have achieved is not just the possibility to welcome Nelson Mandela in this country with an embrace that will be one of the largest he will ever have received anywhere, but you have also helped to set in motion the opportunity for after he is gone for us to continue to move in that spirit, to talk daily, and to bring the blacks and the Jews of this country together and through our commonality to reach out to the Native Americans, to reach out to the Porterriquenos, to reach out to the homeless, to reach out to those who suffer with AIDS, to reach out to all who are in, need of our power, our brotherhood, our humanity, because above and beyond everything else, that is our moral center, and if we betray that, we have betrayed truth, we have betrayed the Judaic ethic, we have betrayed our Christian responsibility, and we have betrayed each other, and we will all perish together.

So I thank you. My wife thanks you. We are welcomed in your house that is holy to let us begin. And you will hear from our Mayor. You will hear from our Congressman, Mr. Charles Rangel and his beloved wife, and from our Chancellor of the Bronx Community College, Mr. Roscoe Brown. We are here because you have sent out the word that we are welcomed in your holy place to begin to bring harmony. That's why we are here, and we welcome you into our places of worship. We welcome you into our homes and let us not ever ever forget that our humanity and our destiny are inextricably bound, and that if we, in particular the black people and the Jews of this country, turn on one and other, I believe there will be no hope for the universe.