Africare Dinner Sponsors Try to Mute Belafonte Controversy

By Marc Morano | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Washington ( - Organizers and those attending Thursday night's Africare Awards dinner honoring entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte made a concerted effort to suppress protests and questions regarding Belafonte's racially charged comments.

Belafonte abruptly turned his back and ended an interview, thundering "Goodnight," when asked about the recent controversy.

A small group of Belafonte protesters were harassed by Africare's staff as part of an effort to stifle any mention of the entertainer's recent comparison of Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" and Belafonte's successful effort to remove National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as the keynote speaker for the dinner.

On the other hand, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said he "completely" agreed with Belafonte's conduct regarding Powell and Rice. Belafonte was given Africare's 2002 Bishop Walker Humanitarian Award at the Washington Hilton. Africare is a non-profit relief group.

Phyllis Berry Myers, president of the Center for New Black Leadership, carried signs protesting Belafonte's appearance. Event organizers tried to take a sign away from her that read: "Harry Belafonte Does Not Speak For Me."

Myers, who was in the public lobby of the hotel, eventually agreed to leave, telling Africare staff, "I will keep my sign and I will take it outside myself."

In the Washington Hilton hotel lobby, dinner organizers also forcibly broke up this reporter's interviews with several different attendees, because they were unhappy with questions about Powell and Rice.

A woman representing Africare intervened repeatedly during taped interviews with dinner participants and led them away, so they could avoid answering any question about Belafonte's controversial actions.

Myers believes Belafonte's remarks and the conduct of the Africare staff are an example of "the new intolerance" that is "rising up to enforce their definition of authentic blackness."

"It is an attempt to castigate and intimidate and also silence any black American who dares dissent from the traditional civil rights orthodoxy," Myers told

Another African American protester, Robert Woodson, Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said he had "been a strong supporter of Africare for years" and is now "disappointed that they would allow Belafonte to drag them into left-wing race politics."

"Africare does itself a disservice by allowing him [Belafonte] to come here and dictate his policies," Woodson said.

Woodson was particularly upset about Rice's removal as keynote speaker at Belafonte's insistence.

Belafonte boasted to MSNBC's Phil Donahue last week that he "protested" Rice's selection as keynote speaker for Africare's awards dinner because, "I did not like her policies and I thought that she was an inappropriate speaker for the evening."

"When it showed up that Condoleezza Rice was to be the keynote speaker, I protested that fact. I told [Africare] I would not come," Belafonte added.

Woodson commented, "This woman is the National Security Advisor. Africare should have told Belafonte if he had a problem with her then he needs to be the one not to come."

"Belafonte is a singer of bad calypso music, that doesn't qualify him as the king of black America," Woodson said.

Audrey Mullen, another protester at the dinner asked, "Where are the feminists? They should be outraged that a woman of Condie Rice's stature was uninvited just because a man was having a hissy fit."

'I retreat from nothing I have said'

During his acceptance speech at the dinner, Belafonte made several references to the public backlash prompted by his comments. Belafonte told the audience, "Those who wish to eradicate my history to the dustbin, who say that civil rights and liberal thought are a thing of the past with no relevance for the future, have seriously misread history.

"The plantations of the world do not sleep; there is a restlessness," he added.

Then Belafonte added, to enthusiastic applause, "History stands on my side. I have nothing to be ashamed of, I retreat from nothing I have said."

In an exclusive interview with, Belafonte said of his award, "I am extremely touched and honored. The work that the Africare institution does is very vital to the needs and the future of the peoples of Africa. I am glad to be a part of it."

But when asked about the controversy over his remarks about Powell and his uninviting of Rice, Belafonte immediately stopped the interview with a thundering "Goodnight."

'Profound disagreement'

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) agreed wholeheartedly with Belafonte's "house slave" description of Colin Powell. "I have been reading and rereading what [Belafonte] said and I am trying to find where there is something inaccurate about what he said, and I can't find it," Conyers said.

"Do I agree with the [slavery] analogy? Yes, completely," Conyers reiterated.

Conyers also defended Belafonte's removal of Rice as the keynote speaker.

"Don't you think he has a right to have someone keynoting who he is in agreement with as opposed to be here listening to a key note address with someone with whom he is in profound disagreement?" asked Conyers.

"I think he exercised his right," Conyers added.

Ron Dellums, a former Democratic Congressman from California who presented the award to Belafonte, refused to comment on any of the controversy.

"I think you should ask Harry Belafonte about those remarks. It's inappropriate for me to respond. I have no knowledge of these matters and I choose not to speak in ignorance," Dellums said.

Austin J. Belton, director of the New Markets Venture Capital Program at the U.S. Small Business Administration, said Belafonte's advanced age may explain his effort to remove Rice as keynote speaker.

"He's getting on in age and I think we just have to let it go at that," Belton told Belafonte is 75 years old.

Former Atlanta Democratic Mayor Andrew Young, who replaced Rice at the last minute as the keynote speaker, refused to comment when asked what he thought about Rice's removal. "I don't know," he said as he turned away and ended the interview.

Bono, lead singer of the musical group U2 and a champion of Third World debt relief, was among those honoring Belafonte at the dinner. He told the crowd, "I learned from Harry Belafonte that as ridiculous as celebrity is, it can be currency, so spend it wisely."

Africare's National Co-Chairs include celebrities Tony Bennett, Jane Fonda, Morgan Freeman, Tony Randall and Mike Farrell. Corporate sponsors include Coca-Cola Company, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Chevron Texaco Corporation, Daimler Chrysler Corporation, Exxon Mobil Corporation, and Shell International Limited.

The U.S. government is also a contributor to Africare. Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) serve as National Honorary Patrons for the organization. However, Lott, distanced himself from the awards dinner following Belafonte's controversial remarks about Powell.

See Related Stories:
Belafonte's Racial Remarks Prompt Criticism, Anxiety
Trent Lott Retreats From Belafonte Awards Dinner
Amid Race Flap, Lott Urged to Pull Out of Belafonte Award Dinner

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