Lift Every Voice

Entertainment and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte challenges black celebrities and the African American community to become much more vocal in the discourse surrounding America’s gun violence crisis.

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Harry Belafonte walks onstage to accept the Spingarn award at the 44th Annual NAACP Image Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Friday, February 1, 2013. (AP/Matt Sayles)
Harry Belafonte walks onstage to accept the Spingarn award at the 44th Annual NAACP Image Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Friday, February 1, 2013. (AP/Matt Sayles)

Few famous people register more than a yawn of recognition on my aging attention span. Thanks to celebrities’ omnipresence in the media, I’m aware of them, but I’m mostly flummoxed by what their flash represents in my life—or anyone else’s.

USA Today, a media outlet that led the way toward the glorification of celebrity style over substance in America, for example, tells me that Kim Kardashian; two of her sisters, Khloe and Kourtney; along with Kanye West, Bethenny Frankel, and Brandi Glanville rate high on this month’s Celebrity Heat Index—an unscientific accounting of good or bad media exposure in the first month of 2013. What does that have to do with anything?

Sometimes, however, I’m delighted when a famous person uses the klieg lights to focus attention on something greater than flashing bling.

Actor Bradley Cooper, for instance, created quite a stir in our CAP offices last Friday, when he stood next to Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) and Patrick Kennedy, the former Democratic Rhode Island congressman, to discuss how his recent film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” is helping to erase some of the irrational stigmas associated with mental illness. Cooper is the star of the movie and portrays a man with bipolar disorder.

Later that night, I was thrilled to watch singer and activist Harry Belafonte use the NAACP Image Awards to speak out on gun violence. But he actually did more than just bemoan the issue, which has been all over the headlines following calls to change our lax gun laws in the wake of the high-profile shootings of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Belafonte, whose long history of civil rights engagement stretches back to using his celebrity to draw attention and support for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism in the 1960s, took advantage of the live broadcast of the NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles to challenge black Americans to stare down those who support lax gun laws. “In the gun game,” he said, “we are the most hunted.”

Belafonte’s remarks help keep the nation’s focus on all the young victims of gun violence. That would include not only the 20 children killed in Newtown, but it would also encompass the lesser-known victims in places such as Chicago, where, for example, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot last month—only a week after performing with a school group at President Barack Obama’s inauguration parade.

As I write this, I’m in Chicago listening to police and community leaders plead with the public to help find the killer responsible for shooting into the crowd and ending Hadiya’s life. A community reward has grown to $40,000.

Jill Garvey, executive director of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based community-organizing group, recently observed in a posting on her organization’s Imagine 2050 blog that the need to address guns in America is urgent—but for reasons that go beyond recent events. She pointed to the Sandy Hook victims but also noted the 24 Chicago Public School students who were fatally shot during the 2011–12 school year—and the 319 Chicago Public School students who were wounded by gunshots during the same period.

Meanwhile, Chicago preachers are praying and mourners are preparing to attend yet another funeral on Saturday.

The Rev. Courtney Maxwell of Greater Deliverance Temple—Hadiya’s family pastor—said community leaders have asked President Obama to attend the funeral. So far the pastor hasn’t heard back from the White House about that, though the president did call the family shortly after the shooting, Rev. Maxwell said.

With far too little fanfare, the president has twice mentioned gun violence in Chicago during speeches, as he tries to promote the administration’s impending legislation aimed at curbing gun violence. Still, some such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson have urged President Obama to play an even greater, more personal role in Hadiya’s case.

But Belafonte took a different route. He argued that gun violence is a public crisis and called on average black Americans—not just those who are famous or politically prominent—to speak out and act to stop the violence.

“The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our black children,” Belafonte said during the NAACP telecast. “Where is the raised voice of black America? Why are we mute?”

Earlier last week Belafonte previewed that message in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that gun violence has crippled black communities for decades but hasn’t received anything near the attention that the December school shooting did.

“What really concerns me is the ingredients of the discourse,” he said to the AP reporter. “The African-American community … where is that community? Where is that voice? I think the black community, the black leadership need to stir it up.”

Belafonte, 85, has been in the public eye for longer than most of today’s so-called celebrities have been alive. As such, he understands what so many of them fail to comprehend: Being famous is worthless if it’s not used to lift up the unknown people who celebrate your name.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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