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Belafonte and Civil Rights Icons Honored

Phi Beta Sigma Celebrates Centennial

Barrington M. Salmon | 1/15/2014, 3 p.m.
Harry Belafonte served as the keynote speaker at Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity's Centennial Founder's Day Gala held at the Renaissance Hotel on Saturday, Jan. 11. Belafonte also challenged the crowd to fight vigorously against violence directed toward women. Photo by Roy Lewis

The Phi Beta Sigma fraternity’s Centennial Founders Ball had a distinctive Civil Rights flavor as more than 1,000 fraternity members and supporters celebrated the organization’s first 100 years.

The honorees – who organizers described as living history pioneers – represent a spectrum of Civil Rights pioneers and public servants. Singer, activist and actor Harry Belafonte regaled and challenged the audience as the event’s keynote speaker and other honorees, the Rev. Al. Sharpton; Freedom Rider Hank Thomas; former New York Congressmen Edolphus Townes; Martin Luther King, Jr., confidantes Congressman John Lewis and minister, author and Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian; Elizabeth Williams-Omilami, president of Hosea Williams Feed the Homeless and Hungry; and Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, challenged the crowd to work for and help the poor and the vulnerable.

Prior to the dinner at the Renaissance Hotel downtown, International President Jonathan A. Mason, Jr. and other Sigma brothers inducted the 86-year-old Belafonte as an honorary member. Belafonte didn’t disappoint, dared the audience to reach out and rescue young people who’re casting about seeking guidance.

“I appreciate your words, artistry and spirit and for giving me the forum and honor to be inducted into this fraternity,” said Belafonte, the first singer to sell one million records. “It is an honor that I am pleased to bear. My only regret is that my mom didn’t see this.”

His Jamaican mother, Belafonte recalled, made peace with the fact that poverty was her life.

“But she tended to the needs of her children and helped them be the beneficiaries of her loss,” said Belafonte, a friend and confidante of King and King family benefactor. “I was also touched by a medical disorder called dyslexia. Seventy-five years ago, there was no name for this; no one knew what it was and what caused it.”

“We wrestled with the Devil and I dropped out. Thousands of children are confined to prisons, dealing with hurdles and are also touched by something they couldn’t overcome. Often, I’m asked what happened to our children why they haven’t understood the legacy and move into the space of Hamer, King, Vivian.”

In a world that throws a lot at parents, there is often too little time or energy to concentrate on children, Belafonte explained.

“As we hunt for answers, I have come to believe what is a fundamental truth: what did you say to your children at the dinner table?” asked Belafonte, who for decades has been a strident voice against social and racial injustice. “You’re tired. You give them something to distract them from your responsibility.”

“The world has put an awful lot on us. An awful lot of people are poor and black ... We’re tired and overworked, and don’t know where the next meal will come from.”

In one sense too, Belafonte said, parents have been too protective, to the young people’s detriment.

“Why did I leave my child untouched to that which numbed and gnarled their lives from what they desire to be and what we’ve impeded them from becoming?” he asked. “We must take time out and ask what are we doing to our children specifically? It’s not just giving to the United Negro College Fund. That’s not the full extent of your obligation and responsibility.”