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Harry Belafonte

October 06, 1985|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times staff writer.

Harry Belafonte, the 58-year-old singer and civil rights activist, is a key organizer of USA for Africa, the ad hoc group of entertainers that has raised $50 million to help alleviate hunger in Africa. His involvement with Africa began 25 years ago when he was a member of the Peace Corps Advisory Council and President Kennedy sent him to meet various heads of state on the continent Q: Did USA for Africa have any lasting effect on the stars?

A: Yes. Most of them had been going along jaunty, jolly, being very happy singing innocuous songs. A lot of them have been turned around. Lionel Richie wrote (with Michael Jackson) the song "We Are the World." And he was forced to see how his song impacted on the world. He now is grappling with what he does with his life. He's on the board of USA for Africa, making decisions on appropriating the money, which takes us into deep political, social and economic questions. I think if you asked Diana Ross, she'd tell you that. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Huey Lewis, Ray Charles. Certainly Stevie Wonder.

Q : Is there pressure on black artists not to speak out?

A: Yes. I would say that most black artists are very, very afraid, knowing that the great white institutions have the power to say yea or nay. So they play the game more often than not.

Q : The people who run the entertainment industry will pick this up on Sunday morning and might say, wait a minute--the whole industry supported USA for Africa.

A: Not the whole industry. The performers came together independent of their managers and agents and everybody. What did Hollywood do? You can't whitewash the industry. The industry has yet to prove itself.

Q : Does the strong support for USA for Africa indicate a serious shift in public sentiment?

A: Yes, particularly given that it went against the main political current in this society now, with Ronald Reagan at the helm. I think there's a polarization taking place. You know, it's wonderful to have Bruce Springsteen on our side. And it's wonderful to have Charlton Heston on the other side.

Q : How do you define "our" side?

A: Those Americans who are totally committed to what the Jeffersonian Constitution said we should be and which came to be embodied in the civil rights movement.

Q : Have you experienced segregation firsthand?

A: Yes, in the Navy during World War II, when it was segregated. And as an entertainer. When I first went to Las Vegas, I was not permitted to live in the hotel or to eat in the dining room or to dress in the same place where my fellow artists dressed at the Thunderbird.

Q : Then why aren't you more impressed with the progress that has been made?

A: I didn't say I wasn't impressed. I just don't want to overstate it. But we've certainly regressed from where we were five years ago.

Q : But what does all this say about a country that could produce both a Reagan and a Springsteen?

A: Or a Lincoln, or a Kennedy, or a Mark Twain. Or give me the privilege of being able to say the President's a schmuck.

Q : How do you regard Springsteen?

A: America always has its proletarian hero. It could be a James Cagney, or a Woody Guthrie. I think in this era, the mantle has been handed to Bruce Springsteen.

Q : Any difficulty accepting white heroes?

A: I think back to the whites who died in the civil rights struggle, like (Andrew) Goodman and (Michael) Schwerner, two students who went down to Mississippi and joined up with a black by the name of (James Earl) Chaney, and paid with their lives. When you have known Eleanor Roosevelt and Justice William O. Douglas, as I did, and when you knew Stan Levison, who was a Jew and a major adviser to Dr. King, you can't be a racist. I talked with Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit, 1 1/2 hours before she was murdered (in Alabama). How can you retain racial attitudes with that much eloquence and honesty having touched your life?

Q : You've made it. Do you think you're a suitable role model for kids from the ghetto?

A: Just like a prominent ballplayer getting a million dollars, or whatever--we represent half of a half of 1% of the black world. I got no further than the first term in high school. I do not wear that as a badge of honor; I wear it as a badge of oppression. I do not tell the kids of this country who are dropping out of school that because I succeeded they can achieve the same things. It's a hoax to hold me up as a black Horatio Alger. I tell them to turn their neighborhoods around, to support their institutions, to get into school, to get away from drugs. I'm a coincidence. I'm here despite the system.

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