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This year marks the 50th anniversary of many civil rights accomplishments in the United States. But even then, leaders of the movement knew the struggle would continue. The recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police have galvanized a new generation of civil rights leaders. In the second of our two special reports, we bring two activists together, one from the old guard and one from the new.
When Harry Belafonte looks at Phillip Agnew, he sees his own political DNA will live on long after he’s gone.
As one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest confidants, Belafonte was one of the earliest champions of the civil rights movement, as well as one of the most prolific singer/songwriters in history. Now 87, Belafonte is an advocate for a number of humanitarian causes and has taken on juvenile justice issues as a celebrity ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored his efforts, awarding him an Oscar statuette.
Belafonte recognizes that his mission is nearing its end, but says the legacy he helped create is in good hands as young civil rights champions such as Agnew step up. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, Agnew co-founded Dream Defenders, a youth-led social justice organization, and has become one of the most prominent leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign.
The two men sat down together last month to discuss their activist roots, the roles poverty and oppression have played in their lives and the future of social change. Their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.
Bridging the generation gap
Belafonte: For a long time, many people have been asking, "What has happened to our youth?" and "Where is the next generation going?" For a lot of people that has been answered by suggesting young people are indifferent, that they are directionless. Nothing seems to motivate them. With the murder of young Trayvon Martin and your response to that experience, and the development of Dream Defenders, I think you instantly filled a space.
One of the things that I enjoy in this process is the fact that the community of young people in the resistance movement has begun to look very carefully at their history – at what preceded them. For those of us who are still alive and still have some of that history in our DNA, we've been called upon. So for us to be able to be of service where young people are going now is a kind of a wonderful circle for me. Have you found that my generation has been responsive to you to, to get what you need?
Agnew: Yes and no. I think you're an example of someone from a previous generation reaching out and reaching back to young people. But I think actually the ball was dropped in between, so the generation immediately preceding ours didn't really [get as much help]. So during the civil rights movement, the dominant aim and desire eventually moved toward integration. And with integration came assimilation, so the generation that followed you all, I believe, began to reap the rewards of the fights of the civil rights movement. I think the lessons that we've learned have almost been unsaid; it’s that the goals of the civil rights movement have yet to be fully met.
Belafonte: I'm struck by your observation that integration was the target for the movement that we experienced in the 1950s, '60s. But integration, I think that's a little misunderstood. We [were] looking to integrate into America, whether it was racial integration, economic integration or some type of social integration. It was that we knew that if we were not part of the fabric of what this nation professed to be about, that if we didn't have the right to vote, that if we didn't have the right to attend institutions of our choice for learning, that if we didn't have a chance to become a bigger part of the American dream that was, for us, also a dream that we would never really truly touch the heartbeat of what America was about. This was about a bigger integration. But it's always been narrowed down to just the issue of race specifically.
When black people got the right to vote totally in this country, it was not just the right to vote as a mechanical act. How do you select the individuals that are going to represent us? The only ones who were visible enough for them to say, “We can trust this individual, or that individual” are all the personalities that emerged from the civil rights movement…That left a void and in that void was where everybody began to say, "What's happened to our young?" Well, they were no longer being instructed when the leadership went off on another mission.
Agnew: After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Dr. King's final crusade over the last years of his life was to shift economic policies. And to be able to sit at a lunch counter next to a white man, what's the use of it if you can't afford to buy anything once you're there? I believe that was the most dangerous part of Dr. King's legacy and what he was trying to leave to the next generation. Do you think it's time that all of us begin to have a front-facing, very outward indictment of capitalism and to embrace that a whole lot more in the way that we talk about what we want to see?
Belafonte: I think the indictment of capitalism is not a new theme for our current history. We've always been talking about economic parity. It's always about owning resources and exploiting resources that nourishes the human existence on a level playing field. What black people have always wanted was not that we were rushing to become racially integrated. That was not really what the mission was about. But the specific target was to shape the economic paradigm.
Agnew: My first experience ever with activism was in college, and it was the murder of a young man named Martin Lee Anderson. He was 14 years old. He was killed in a boot camp in Dade County, Florida.
It was in that experience that I really began to see what a path could look like for all the anger that I had about growing up poor, and all the anger I had about looking around and seeing everybody around me struggling. Everybody around me having to work double to make ends meet, and then also going to a magnet school where everybody seemed to be getting anything they wanted, and having everything in abundance. It was the first time that I was able to see that possibly my family wasn't just unlucky or weren't lazy or weren't destined for poverty; that there was something else going on there.
Belafonte: People ask me, "What motivated you [to] become an activist?" And I said, "It wasn't Karl Marx. It really wasn't Abe Lincoln. It was just poverty."
In the early years of my old career, I was branded as being arrogant and I never saw myself as arrogant. After I examined carefully why this critique was being put in place to define who I was, it was [that] white folks just weren't used to hearing black people speak with a sense of equality. I want to speak just like you speak to the issues and say what's on my mind and in my heart; your sense [is] that I'm not being servile enough, that I'm not being more appreciative of how benevolent you are. So here you come and now they're not seeing you as arrogant. They're seeing you as something far more interesting.
Agnew: Yeah, I don't know how they see me. I don't know if I'm as interested in how they see me as I am. We've been talking a lot within Dream Defenders. We're beginning to frame our fight. Our target is not the Koch Brothers. Our target is – and in reading Dr. King, I think he would agree – not President Obama. Our target is actually public opinion. And it's the masses of people that we've got to move and shift from their place of comfort or their place of ignorance possibly, or even just their place of complicity in the system to seeing the world in the way that we see it. Then, we can all collectively build a vision for the world, as we would all like to see it.
The power of voting
Belafonte: For us, just to get the right to vote was the target, assuming that once we got that right we would now be on our way to the utopia that you referred to. But when we got that right to vote, we abused that reward, because where is the full participation in that process? Of all the things I think we could do as a people in this country, the most important tool at our disposal is the vote.
The reason that we seem to be fighting the same fight all the time is because we are fighting the same fight all the time. This generation has to now go back and pay attention to the things that we had won, [which] are now being lost because of this power play. I think this thing that we feel redundant, that we are fighting the same thing, is because the enemy has always kept us in the same place.
Agnew: For me, this has always, always, always been about my personal experience with poverty – what I saw it do to my family, what I've seen it do to my family in the community that I came from, and what it did to me, mentally, physically, the effects it had on my relationships and the way that I saw myself.
Anxiety of a movement
Belafonte: One of the things that consistently nourished my commitment to Dr. King was his honesty. The fact that he remained eternally vulnerable, because he always was in question about his right to lead, his right to make decisions and do things that could have such an impact on human life. One of the things that he did in order to help him stay buoyant in the midst of the storm and decisions was the fact that he gathered around him people he thought would bring him instruction or points of view that would keep him on course. When he [had] severe anxiety, it was not for a long period of time, but it was evident enough for us to be of concern because he developed a tick. I remember I once took on “The Tonight Show” and hosted it for a week and Dr. King was one of my guests that week.
I noticed in that time, 1968, that he had less of that tick and that he had somehow maybe gotten over it. I said to him, "What happened to the tick?" I think he said – I don't remember the exact thing – "What has gotten me over it is that I have made my peace with death." And I said, "Made your peace with death?" He said, "Yes, I put that behind me. I'm no longer preoccupied with how I live or how long I live. If I die being in the service of uplifting fellow beings, then that's my reward for the commitment." And in that adjustment, he got rid of the tick.
Agnew: I think we all know at some point what our purpose is, and I was misaligned with it. I was horribly just in another place. The murder of Trayvon, for me, this was after Occupy [Wall Street] and after Troy Davis, and I looked around the country, and it seemed like there were a lot of other people who were just as angry as I was about the lot that we had been cast in life. It seemed like people around the country wanted to do something about it. Really, I just followed that. I was able to get back into activism during that time and since then been on a journey really to figure out and rediscover who I am and maybe what or who I'm supposed to be. And [I’m] also on a journey to tell other people about that journey; to tell young people that, look, please do not conform. Because I think once they take that away from our children, that desire to be different, to be unique, to question everything, to think critically about what's around them, to question everything, then that's when they win.
Belafonte: I am really quite touched by the extent to which Phillip Agnew and so many other young people have accepted the responsibility to move for social change – by their presence and by their courage and by the astuteness that they bring to the process. My mission is near its end. That's just a fact of life. Not maudlin. Everybody dies. But in this space I found that in Phillip Agnew, [he has] my political DNA and that he wants to do it the way he's doing it. [That] tells me that the future doesn't look so bleak.