Harry Belafonte Reaffirms a Proud Tradition

by William Loren Katz on November 23, 2006

“He [President George W. Bush] lied to the people of this nation, distorted the truth, declared war on a nation who had not attacked us . . . put America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way . . . and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of [Iraqi] women and children who had nothing to do with it. It was an act of terror.”
—Harry Belafonte, Amsterdam News, (January 25, 2006 p. 1)

Harry Belafonte did more than speak truth to a President who lied to justify an invasion that has taken the lives of more than 2,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. He became part of a proud African American tradition Frederick Douglass started in 1848.

Frederick Douglass excoriated President Polk’s administration for “grasping ambition, atrocious aggression, and wholesale murder of an unoffending people” in “a disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war,” and demanded “the instant recall of U.S. forces from Mexico.” Since President Polk lied to justify a U.S. invasion that seized land stretching from Texas to California for new slave states, Douglass said, “I would not care if tomorrow, I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in that bloody war.” (Congressman Abraham Lincoln also reviled Polk for using a lie to order an invasion and land seizure from an innocent neighbor.)

During the Spanish American War of 1898, another conflict based on a lie, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells urged her people to oppose all overseas actions until African Americans were safe from lynching. Lewis Douglass, Civil War hero and the son of Frederick Douglass, said the McKinley administration’s invasion of the Philippines would bring “race hate and cruelty, barbarous lynchings and gross injustice to dark people.” A.M.E. Bishop Henry M. Turner not only denounced the occupation but was appalled the U.S. sent 6,000 Black soldiers “to subjugate a people of their own color. I can scarcely keep from saying that I hope the Filipinos wipe such soldiers from the face of the earth.”

Black U.S. troops in the field expressed their anger at being part of, as one soldier charged, “a gigantic scheme of robbery and oppression.” Another Black solider admitted, “These people are right and we are wrong, terribly wrong.” Twenty U.S. soldiers, including 12 African Americans, defected to Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo and his freedom-fighting army.

In 1951 during the Korean War Paul Robeson opposed U.S. help for “a corrupt clique of politicians [in South Korea].” “If we don’t stop our armed adventure in Korea today,” he warned, “tomorrow it will be Africa.”  W.E.B. Du Bois saw the war as “the culmination of a wicked and shameful policy…which our government has ruthlessly pursued with respect to the colonial people of the world.” Government agents harassed Robeson and Du Bois, and the U.S. State Department lifted their passports. Du Bois, who had founded a Peace Information Center to circulate the “Stockholm Peace Petition” demanding a ban on nuclear weapons, was arrested and tried as a foreign agent. After Du Bois won in court, he told a Madison Square Garden Rally “We are peddling freedom to the world…and dropping death on those who refuse to use it.”

African Americans were a vital part of the massive protests that helped end the Viet Nam War. In 1965 the first organization to denounce the war was the Black-led Freedom Democratic Party of McComb, Mississippi. Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought a huge anti-war march to the United Nations where Carmichael led the chant: “Hell no, we won’t go.” King called the United States “the largest purveyor of violence in the world today” and urged young men to avoid the draft. When world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title because he refused to report for military service, he also refused to be silenced: “No, I am not going ten thousand miles to help murder and kill and burn other people simply to help continue the domination of white slave masters over the dark people of the world.”

Harry Belafonte has raised to new heights a proud, patriotic, American and African American tradition—opposition to a President who lies and sacrifices American lives in order to promote and justify wars of aggression.

This article has appeared on several websites including Association of Black Journalists, The Black World Today and Counterpunch.

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