Harry Belafonte Talks to Jelani Cobb About Entertainment and Activism

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The actor and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte addresses the crowd during a rally following the memorial march in tribute for the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memphis, TN, 1968.

We take for granted that popular entertainers can and should advocate for causes they believe in. But until Harry Belafonte pioneered that kind of activism in the middle of the last century, stars largely kept their political leanings private. In the lead-up to October’s Many Rivers to Cross festival, which Belafonte helped dream up, the New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb paid a visit to the actor, musician, and civil-rights icon. Belafonte turned eighty-nine this year and is looking to pass the torch, but he’s worried about the state of the civil-rights movement and what he sees as a lack of organized response: we have a struggle, he says, but not a movement. Cobb, who covers many civil-rights and other political issues for the magazine, teases out what Belafonte means.