In the dimly lit Apollo Theater, his copper skin glowed.
Dressed in a gray suit, white button down shirt and black tie, Harold George Belafonte Jr personified a life of service and courage at the ten year anniversary for the Gathering For Justice, Justice Ball. Having circled the sun for more than eight decades, Belafonte’s resume of achievements–being the first solo artist to sell a million copies of his 1956 album Calypso–and his Rolodex of friends and mentors– Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin and singer, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson–make our network of Twitter followers look like amateurs.
“I am truly blessed. In a few short months I will be 90,” he said holding onto his cane. “It has been a life that has been filled with all sorts of incredible moments, but perhaps the greatest was that I not only had the opportunity to meet Paul Robeson, but to be embraced and encouraged by him.”
The 89-year-old activist, along with political and public affairs strategist Alida Garcia and The Central Park Five were all on hand Monday night (November 9) to receive awards for their bravery and resilience, which coincidentally was also the 93rd birthday of actress Dorothy Dandridge, who starred opposite Belafonte in the films Bright Road, Island In The Sun and 1954’s Carmen.
The 102-year-old venue underwent a glamorous transformation for the night’s ball. Round banquet tables with gold chairs and black table cloth covered the Apollo floor, and while attendees, dressed in their floor-length gowns and suits ate and drank wine, statistics surrounding America’s prison system flooded a projector behind them.
In April 2005, after a meeting with Nelson Mandela, Belafonte saw video footage online of a 5-year-old girl being handcuffed and arrested by three St. Petersburg police officers. Enraged, Belafonte organized a three-day retreat in Atlanta with the who’s who of the movement to devise a plan and create an assignment to end the injustice, and while many were willing and passionate, Belafonte noticed his longtime friends didn’t have the energy to fight anymore.
“They were already in the battle, but I got the feeling they weren’t ready to go another round,” he said.
It was then he focused his energy on the youth and founded the Gathering for Justice. Under his leadership and the tutelage of executive director Carmen Perez, the organization has committed itself to seeking justice for black and brown men and women effected by police brutality.
A group of men who know all too well about being victims of the police and the justice system are the Central Park Five. In 1989, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Kharey Wise were tried and convicted of the brutal rape and beating of a 28-year-old investment banker who went jogging in Central Park. The boys, who were just 14 and 15 years old at the time, were tried, convicted and served between six and 13 years in prison. Their convictions were later overturned when a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
Santana, Richardson and Salaam received their honor from two members of the Jersey Four, who in 1998 were shot in a van by a state trooper on the New Jersey turnpike, igniting one of the nation’s largest racial profiling cases.
“I’m always humbled to be in front of folks, because back in 1989 and 1990, most people believed the lies being thrown at us,” Salaam said.
Due to their wrongful convictions, The Central Park Five, dubbed by the press as the “Wolf Pack” were awarded $40 million in 2014. The men involved in the shooting on the New Jersey turnpike received $13 million.
“There’s a price to be paid when you stand up against tyranny, when you stand up against oppression, when you stand up against greed, and that price to be paid can sometimes be cruel,” Belafonte said.
With stellar performances from students, singer V Boseman, rappers Immortal Technique and Mysonne “The General” Linnen, the nights greatest tribute came from longtime friend, fellow activist and Academy-Award winner Sidney Poitier who congratulated Belafonte via a video message.
“Happy 10th anniversary, mighty friend.”
Indeed. Mr. Belafonte. Cheers!