“What would Martin Luther King say about Donald Trump?”
A young man stood up and asked this on behalf of a packed LSC Theater. It was a question that had doubtlessly been asked many times, all across America, since the 2016 election.
However, it is a rare opportunity to sit in the same room with someone who can answer the question with legitimacy. This was precisely what the bent figure sitting on the theater’s stage could do. At ninety years old, Harry Belafonte did not simply remember seeing Dr. King speak on television, as did so many of his generation. He remembered the words of a close friend.
The legendary musician and civil rights advocate came to Fort Collins to speak about a film at the ACT Human Rights Film Festival called “I Am Not Your Negro.” The film is a documentary about an unfinished manuscript called “Remember This House,” which is a memoir written by civil rights activist and professor James Baldwin shortly before his death. It chronicles Baldwin’s thoughts on Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Medgar Evers, who were all killed during his lifetime.
“There has been conflict of race in this country as long as there has been race in this country,” Belafonte said. “What has our relationship with history revealed? We sit at a moment, at the time that may bring all our efforts to an end. As a nation, we rewarded all our struggles with a madman as answer to the belief in justice and brotherhood and all other hoods.”
Belafonte continued, answering the question by hearkening back to a time he saw King debate a segregationist.
“This segregationist was an esteemed intellectual, a judge, a professor. Martin said ‘yours is a great intellect. If all this has been at your disposal and it hasn’t convinced you on the incorrectness of your position, what can I possibly say in an hour? All I can do is pray for your soul.’”
Belafonte’s sentiment echoed that of Baldwin’s unfinished writings in the film. A sprawling account of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary juxtaposes footage of fire hoses being turned on black protesters with the more recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The film’s implicit message is that we are again at a crossroads when it comes to race relations in America.
Baldwin’s words continually convey the idea that it is not possible for one race to deny freedom to another without harming itself. Racism and the violence it produces are poison both to those who passively accept bigotry.
The film compared imagery from the past and present so seamlessly that Baldwin’s words appeared to be about the present day.
It took Belafonte considerable efforts to reach Fort Collins. He journeyed here anyways to share Baldwin’s message and to remind us that the fight for racial equality still matters in America. As Belafonte said to end the festival’s last night, “The great American question of race will not be settled until we have a square debate on the issue of race and what we do to each other in the name of it.”
Collegian reporter Ryan Green can be reached at email@example.com.