Activist Harry Belafonte continues tradition of MLK ULS speakers

Harry Belafonte, artist and activist, will be speaking Tuesday as a part of ULS. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Each year the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. day as a way to remember the strides he pushed for during the civil rights movement. At USF, this means a week of events centered around the topic of civil rights with one of the staples being the University Lecture Series (ULS) speaker.

Over the past few years, speakers have included Black Lives Matter organizer Alicia Garza, rapper Killer Mike and journalist Soledad O’Brien who are all making waves in the current climate in favor of social change.

However, this year’s speaker isn’t looking at the present so much as looking at the past.

“This year, the students on ULS wanted to give USF Tampa students the opportunity to experience a part of history,” said Margaret Merryday, student programs coordinator for ULS.

Harry Belafonte, 90, social activist and entertainer, will be featured as this year’s MLK speaker. Belafonte has a different connection to the topic of MLK than previous lecturers as somebody who knew MLK personally.

Belafonte supported MLK from early on in the civil rights movement and used his position as a well-known performer to promote it. He was introduced to MLK at a party in 1963, and the two became close friends.

When MLK was arrested during the Birmingham Campaign, a movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  to bring awareness to integration efforts, Belafonte raised $50,000 to keep the campaign going.

In 1967, MLK turned to Belafonte to help with the Freedom Festival — a music festival held in Texas that would serve as a fundraiser for the civil rights movement. According to a letter written by MLK to Belafonte, this was a time of particular struggle within the movement as it faced economic challenges and saw supporters leaving due to mixed messaging.

“Our philosophy remains the same,” the letter stated. “We are committed to militant, nonviolent social change. We feel that consciences must be enlisted in the movement rather than racial groups, so we continue to welcome the support and the cooperation of our white brothers. We have not given up on the dream of an integrated society however difficult it is to attain.”

After MLK’s assassination, Belafonte served as the executor of his estate and became the chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund. He has continued to speak out for civil rights through fundraisers to supply support to people in Africa, serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and speaking out for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Mr. Belafonte’s lecture is unique in that he’s not necessarily a celebrity of the generation in which most of our students were born, but his word has had a significant impact on their lives,” Merryday said. “In this time of a modern resurgence of activism, ULS felt it would be important to connect our students’ experience back to where it all began.”

The speech will be held in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. It is open to both students and the public on a first-come first-serve basis, but students can reserve a seat ahead of time.


~Additional reporting by Amanda Lopez