Young and middle-aged Americans don’t have any radical thoughts about social issues, a skill that civil-rights activists used 50 years ago to solve the injustices that plagued American society, actor and activist Harry Belafonte said Tuesday night.
"We have to get back to radical thought," Belafonte said. "Dr. King was a radical. Stokely Carmichael was a radical. Christ was a fierce radical. His daily life involved helping the poor and speaking against injustice."
Belafonte, 85, was the keynote speaker at Winston-Salem State University’s celebration to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
WSSU and Wake Forest University collaborated on the event, which drew about 1,000 people to the Williams Auditorium at WSSU.
In his 45-minute speech, the raspy-voiced Belafonte also talked about the first time he met King in the 1950s, their participation in the civil-rights movement, and his views on President Barack Obama and the current national debate on gun control.
Belafonte said he and King met when King was visiting New York City to speak to ministers. At the time, Belafonte was 26; King was 24. King wanted Belafonte to help with the civil-rights movement, Belafonte said. At that time, Belafonte, a native of Harlem, was a young celebrity known for his calypso music and later for his role in the movie, "Carmen Jones."
Belafonte was impressed with King’s speaking skills – and one other thing: "He was filled with radical thought," Belafonte said.
Throughout the 1960s, the men talked often and worked together on various issues, Belafonte said. Belafonte and King developed a deep friendship that lasted until King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Belafonte said that King was concerned that America had lost its moral compass because too many Americans are concerned with greed and materialism and don’t care about social injustices.
Belafonte urged students to use radical thinking to solve today’s problems.
Belafonte said King would agree with Obama when the president said during his inaugural speech Monday that every citizen has to help him improve the country. That is an invitation for people to engage in radical thinking, Belafonte said.
Belafonte criticized opponents of reasonable gun-safety measures and urged black people to speak out against the "flood of guns" in their communities.
Belafonte ended his speech by imploring the audience to "take time to consider radical thought."
"Radical thought doesn’t mean radical thinking," he said. "Radical thinking is thinking outside the box."
Sam Mosley, a WSSU freshman from Wilmington, said Belafonte’s speech made him think.
"It was intriguing," Mosley said. "It made think me about different aspects of life."