Pick-Staiger Concert Hall was filled to capacity for the concluding keynote to the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations Monday night featuring the “King of Calypso,” Harry Belafonte.
Belafonte is accredited with bringing calypso into the American mainstream when his breakthrough 1956 album became the first LP in the US to sell more than one million copies within a year. The musician was also well-known actor and an Emmy award-winning producer. Along with leading a famed singing career (Beetlejuice, anyone?), Belafonte was a prominent civil rights activist and held a deep friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The keynote included performances from the Alice Millar Chapel Choir, the Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble and the Northwestern Community Ensemble. Introductory remarks were made by Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, ASG President Victor Shao and Medill professor Charles Whitaker.
Whitaker co-chaired the 2013 Martin Luther King Day Planning Committee with University Chaplain Timothy Stevens. He began by addressing a question he’s struggled with in the past: why the community celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. every January. “We gather to declare individually and institutionally that we at Northwestern have a resolution to make our country and our planet a more just and equitable place,” Whitaker concluded.
Though Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was on Jan. 21, Belafonte’s keynote was scheduled for a week later because of his keynote speech at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual tribute concert.
In his keynote, Belafonte spoke of meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. when both men were in their mid-20s. “I was taken with his thoughts,” Belafonte said. King taught him and other human rights activists to “use nonviolence to deal with the enemy.” After playing an integral role in the civil rights movement, Belafonte later helped to end apartheid in South Africa and secure the release of his close friend Nelson Mendela.
Belafonte went on to become cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, a position appointed to him by President John F. Kennedy, and the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also guided the production of the 1985 hit single “We are the World,” a response to violence in Africa.
Belafonte’s keynote struck a serious tone when he addressed a pressing issue for the United States today: gun control. “Where is the black voice in this debate?” he asked. African Americans are the most victimized by guns, Belafonte said, “yet we have let others shape the debate.” He referred to the Second Amendment as a “shoddy excuse for villainy” and urged students to help put an end to senseless gun violence: “That’s what I am committing myself to in the last days of my life.”