believes Harry Belafonte's remarks to Larry King of CNN were eloquent and inspirational. We also think he is right. We present a transcript of the entire interview, courtesy of CNN as a service to you if did not see it. If you did see the broadcast we feel you may want to read the text again.


Interview with Harry Belafonte

Aired October 15, 2002 - 21:00   ET

LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Tonight, exclusive: what's Harry Belafonte's problem with Colin Powell? He's here to explain his controversial remarks about the secretary of state. First, for openers, we thank Harry Belafonte for giving us this time exclusively. Second, to also inform you that I've known Harry Belafonte for over 40 years. I've also known Colin Powell for well over 12 years, consider both friends. Harry Belafonte needs no defender. His work in activism in well noted, but I will tell you that I was with him in Miami Beach when he became the first black to stay at a Miami Beach hotel.

He was a close friend of Martin Luther King, worked as a humanitarian, won numerous prizes, including a Nelson Mandela Courage Award. He has -- he brought together performers like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, was responsible for "We are the World." His work with troubled youth, President Kennedy named him a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps. The list could go on and on.

Harry Belafonte doesn't need anybody talking about his credit, but he did surprise many of his friends and followers with a statement on a San Diego radio station. Let's listen to that statement.


HARRY BELAFONTE, ACTIVIST: There's an old saying in the days of slavery. There are those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master. Colin Powell was permitted to come into the house of the master.


KING: All right, Harry, what did you mean?

BELAFONTE: First of all, let me hasten to say, Larry, that this was never meant to be a personal attack on Colin Powell's character.

What it was meant, however, to be was an attack on policy, and the reference and the metaphor used about slavery -- it is my personal feeling that plantations exist all over America. If you walk into South Central Los Angeles, into Watts, or you walk into Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, you'll find people who live lives that are as degrading as anything that slavery had ever produced. They live in economic oppression, they live in a disenfranchised way. In the hearts and minds of those people, and millions of others, you're always looking for hope, and whenever somebody within our tribe, within our group, emerges that has the position of authority and power to make a difference in the way business is done, our expectations run high. Many times, those expectations are not fulfilled. But when such an individual is in the service of those who not only perpetuate the oppression, but sometimes design the way in which it is applied, it then becomes very, very, very, very critical that we raise our voices and be heard. And...

KING: I'm sorry, I don't mean -- isn't it possible, Harry, one, that Colin Powell, who has stood up for his country, fought for his country, may have disagreed in counsel, but supports his president in a tough time of need -- why compare that to being -- as a slave?

BELAFONTE: Because, I think, to a great degree, that which governs us is really the extent to which we are permitted by the forces of power in this country to do what it is we can do to make a difference.

The civil rights movement was a huge struggle against an enormous opposition. You know, many people who lived under that tenet and what we had to do to try to position people in high places to make a difference so we could change the way in which our democracy functioned was part of the game.

And Colin Powell is in that position. And I do believe that the policies that have been expressed by the administration he serves are less than honorable. It is not just about what I say.

Last year, in South Africa, the United Nations under Kofi Annan gave us an excellent opportunity in convening the International Conference on Racism directed by a woman of remarkable credentials, the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. There was a place where the United States should have been in attendance, and given us the benefit of thought on a very grievous set of conditions that affect the human family -- the issue of race.

And in that instance, the United States government sought to turn its back on the thousands of people who were gathered there to make a difference. And Colin Powell was the point person on that distancing of our country. You know...

KING: What did you want him to do? What do you want him to do?

BELAFONTE: I would like him to live up to a higher moral standard. You know, Jeffords doesn't have to be the only one who sits in disagreement with the policies of this country and this government and acts upon it out of conscience.

Where is Colin Powell's conscience? In a time when the world is getting ready to go up in flames in a war that's hugely ill-advised, you know. Today we are going to go after Iraq. You know, where do we go next? After Iran? And then, when our present friends fall out of favor with us, do we go after Pakistan?

KING: But can't Colin Powell have a belief that the Iraqi situation is the administration's point of view, is correct and agree with its principles without giving up his own -- you're assuming that he's going against his principles. Maybe they are his principles.

BELAFONTE: Well, if they are his principles, then I sit opposed to them. I have to make the assumption that it's not his principles because of what he said (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the Republican National Convention when he gave that remarkable speech. Or when he said going through the United Nations as the vehicle through which this problem should be settled. To do anything less than that and to stick to that mandate I think is a sellout.

KING: So you think he is selling -- has he disappointed you, then?

BELAFONTE: Yes. You know, unfortunately. He has.

As I said before earlier, we have high expectations. Necessarily for those who come from color, who come from a history of oppression, or at least an understanding of it. And what we would hope is that people who come from that experience would use it effectively to change the way in which others do business in the world of oppression.

KING: Do you have the same views about Condoleezza Rice?

Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Even more so. Because I've never heard from Condoleezza Rice even the suggestion towards some of the more lenient thoughts or some of the more appropriate thoughts that Colin Powell has expressed.

KING: Let's say they share your beliefs and are trying to do the best from within. Do you want them to make a moral statement and quit the administration? Do you want them to speak out and say, I was opposed but -- what do you want Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice -- let's concentrate on Colin -- what do you want him to do?

BELAFONTE: Colin Powell is not a victim here. Let's get that straight. Colin Powell is a individual, he's a man of enormous resources, he has an enormous intelligence, he has that agenda. What is that agenda, Colin? I mean, you know, you speak about the disenfranchised, you speak about the fairness of race. You speak about democracy. Everything that is in your administration's policy runs contrary to that fact.

KING: And Condoleezza -- you feel the same way. So if you were them, you would quit.

BELAFONTE: If I was them, I would use the platform to speak out against the ill-advised policies of the administration. I would go as far as inviting to be fired, if that's what happens.

You know, Colin Powell's on the brink of being nominated for presidency of this country. Obviously, he's held in high esteem. He doesn't have to grovel to anyone.

You know, nor do I suggest that that's necessarily what he's doing. Maybe his agenda is that of the president's. He often says that he serves them with great pride and with great passion. That's unfortunate.

KING: In retrospect, were your remarks a bit harsh by going into a comparison to slavery? To making him appear like, well, put it frankly, Uncle Tom?

BELAFONTE: Well, I think those who have the capacity and the courage to make a difference by doing bold things, who refuse to apply that condition, are more often suspect of selling out than they are of standing brave and courageous as others have done.

You know, I didn't refer to him as an Uncle Tom. I said, those who sit in the service of the house and those who sit in the service of those who languish on the plantation. America has many plantations, even today. Not only in America, those plantations sit in many places around the world, where I've seen people suffer.

I work for the United Nations. I go to places where enormous upheaval and pain and anguish exist. And a lot of it exists based upon American policy. Whom we support, whom we support as heads of state, what countries we've helped to overthrow, what leaders we've helped to diminish because they did not fit the mold we think they should fit, no matter how ill advised that thought may be. It is not without reason that I make my observation.

KING: Harry, I want you to just spend a moment watching Colin Powell's response when I asked him about your remarks on our show about ten days ago. Here's Colin.


If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that was fine. If he wanted to attack a particular position I hold, that was fine. But to use a slave reference I think is unfortunate and is a throwback to another time and another place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using.


KING: Want to comment?

BELAFONTE: Yes. Let me first of all tell you, Larry, slavery is a noble part of black history. It's an anguished part of this country's history. Most of who and what we are was shaped during the period of slavery. Our forefathers, those who were courageous and noble enough to resist tyranny, shaped their thoughts during slavery.

And the plantations were a difficult place on which to live and to work. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong to talk about the plantation and to throw back to the time of slavery. Why not? It's part of our history. As a matter of fact, we've forgotten it much too quickly and much too easily.

KING: But it was obviously you hurt him, Harry. There was pain in him because he obviously admires you a great deal. You're one of the greater entertainers of all time. You both have a Jamaican heritage. He must have felt a closeness to you. he had to be -- I mean don't you feel bad that you hurt him?

BELAFONTE: I still feel closely to Colin Powell. I'd still like to reach for him. He's not the first person in office who has eluded us or presented an opportunity to do some good that we thought we could never have.

Bobby Kennedy, was when he first came into office, somebody that we looked at with enormous anguish and suspicion because we didn't feel that he understood the struggles of black people in this country. And our task was to reach to him and to provoke him and to push him until he became a human being who was awakened to the cause of the peoples of this country who sit disenfranchised and who were living in oppression in a very violent time in our nation, when racism was legal. And look at what happened to him by the end of his life because those of us who spoke out awakened him to understand that what he's doing is not acceptable.

KING: We'll be right back with more of Harry Belafonte. We'll include some phone calls. Mr. Belafonte, thankfully enough also still entertains. Appears in concert frequently and is welcomed wherever he goes. This is a very fascinating discussion which I hope you find as interesting as I do.


Today he continues to bring art and activism together to inspire all of us to live our lives with passion and with concern for others.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating Harry Belafonte.


KING: Was that -- what was that medal, Harry?

BELAFONTE: It was the National Medal for the Arts. It was given to me by President Clinton. And I was very honored to receive it.

KING: You've also been critical of President Clinton at times.

BELAFONTE: Yes, I have.

What's wrong with criticism? What's wrong with the voice of dissent? What's wrong with another point of view? That's what America is built on.

And I want to tell you something -- the minute we lose that right and that capacity to do that, we've lost our soul as a nation.

KING: You would not change the statement?

No. I would perhaps put it in a context that would be a little bit more -- like the opportunity you're giving me now to put it in a context, but in essence, I wouldn't change the statement.

KING: But Colin Powell has been a voice in the Republican party for moderation. Many didn't like his views on abortion, he's pro- choice. He certainly has stood up for affirmative action. He had a lot to do with integration in the military service. He has been a bulwark to black people in America, who look for -- as you looked for -- you looked for the Martin Luther Kings and others -- who look for people who are example of leadership.

And this administration, while it's being wrapped, has a secretary of state who is black and a National Security Adviser who is black. That's never happened before.

You're still dealing with the personality of the man. What I'm dealing with are the issues about the policies that he serves. That's what this is about.

We're getting ready to go to war. American boys and girls are going to be dead on some foreign battlefield again. In a place that all advice doesn't suggest that it's the best move we could make. That's a serious, serious concern for the citizens of this country.

It is about the policy, Larry. It's not about the man. I like Colin Powell. I like his West Indian background. I like his intellect. I like a lot of things that he does and his style. What is at fault here is a policy that's taking this country to hell.

You know, to quote Shakespeare these days is not the most popular thing, that not a lot of artists can do, but I would say to you, that in the closing act of "King Lear," the character says, "'Tis the time's plague when the -- when mad men lead the blind.'"

And I tell you, there's madness that's in the world today and what even exacerbates the problem is that nowhere do you hear voices of reason coming to the table with ideas and thoughts that could change the scenario because they're not given the opportunity to be here.

Amelia Robinson whom I just mentioned, she was one of the leading voices in the United Nations. We worked tenaciously to getting her dismissed and now she's gone. Why?

KING: Isn't one of the classic examples of madness in the world Saddam Hussein?

BELAFONTE: Absolutely. No question.

KING: So what do you do about him?

BELAFONTE: Go through the United Nations and follow the Council and the principles of the international family. That's what we do about it. Stop bullying the world. Stop saying, That you do it our way or no way counts. That is not civil.

KING: And if the United Nations says we will take military action, you then support it?

BELAFONTE: Yes. If the United Nations decides to take action, then I would stand by the United Nations.

KING: On -- by the way, where were you on 9/11?

BELAFONTE: On another channel, getting ready to launch a work that I had just done. I was on NBC and just about to go down to the World Trade Center for breakfast. Had the incident happened just an hour later, I might very well have been one of its victims.

KING: All right. Now, the world changed that day, Harry, you had to admit that. We can't sit around -- I mean, it may be fine to say that this is what we're based on, but we're a nervous nation. And when you're nervous and when there's a threat of -- look what's going on in Washington, Maryland and Virginia now, you have to act in ways that may not be standard with the morality and the history of this country.

But we've never faced this before. Isn't that just being realistic?

I challenge that our only option to conduct that is new to us, that is villainous, is to do something that's immoral. I don't buy that. I don't buy that at all. I think there are a lot of ways in which these situations can be dealt with and should be dealt with.

KING: So you don't think we have to change anything? We could just go on as we have?

BELAFONTE: Oh no. I think we have to change a lot. Mostly, how we helped breed the playing ground in which a lot of thinking tyranny comes out of. Our hands are not clean, Larry.

There are nations all over this globe that suffer from policies that we have implemented. People go away bitter with a great sense of loss and families are destroyed.

Terror isn't only our experience. Terror is experienced by people all over the place and we have helped instigate some of it.

KING: How about those who say, let's say, Condoleezza Rice is a classic example of how we've come a long way. Here's a woman who 30 years ago wouldn't have made a dent. She goes to professor at Stanford, she's a National Security Adviser in the administration.

You may disagree with her policies, but wouldn't you say, you've come a long way?

BELAFONTE: Absolutely. There's no question we've come a long way. Nobody dismisses that. That does not, however, diminish how far it is we still have to go.

And just evoking the person's gender, because Condoleezza Rice is a woman, and her color, because she's black, does not justify abdication of moral responsibility. That does not make it all right or better.

If she were a Jew and were doing things that were anti-semitic and against the best interests of people, that would also stand the same way. This is not about color. It's not about gender. It's about policy. It's about what choices we make as a people, about the human family and where we're going and what we're doing. That's what this is about. KING: And that's what General Powell said in his statement on this show. Criticize me on my policy, but don't go back to making me a slave in the house of a master and because I'm a good slave, I get to serve in the house. That was taking it too far to hit him personally.

BELAFONTE: Well, I'm glad it woke him up. I'm glad it made him pay attention. I'm not too sure that I'd have gotten on your show discussing this in this way if these things are not happened. That was not my intention, incidentally. I was caught in a very passionate moment in that radio interview. And I spoke my piece. But now that it is on the table, fine, I will continue to speak my thoughts on the subject and I will stand corrected if I have made error, but I do believe that what I am talking about is what is not being discussed. It is who stands responsible for the mistakes this nation makes because it doesn't want to listen to dissent.

KING: Would you like to sit down with the Secretary?


Let's take some calls for one of the great entertainers of modern times, Harry Belafonte.

Marietta, Georgia -- hello.



CALLER: First of all, I want to say that I have a lot of respect for both of you, and Harry, I just want to say that while I respectfully disagree with what you said about Colin Powell, I am curious as to what your friends, your family, and especially your counterparts in the show business arena had to say about your comments.

KING: Good question.

BELAFONTE: Well, most of my friends with whom I've talked about have been somewhat caught up in this fracas, and I think, by and large, everybody understands what I meant, understands where I'm coming from, and they see no villainy in it, and I think they are -- they stand by me.

KING: Were any critical of you, Harry?

BELAFONTE: Well, some thought that the public was going to have a big problem, because the public does not come from the same kind of a sophisticated sense of history and all the different things that I've been exposed to, so I think people are going to have difficulty. But then, people have always had a difficulty around the issue of race, slavery, and plantations...

KING: Well, because many of the public would say, as you said, slavery is a great -- as a part of American history, many would say, the farther we get away from it the better, and referral was only taking it back to bad times.

BELAFONTE: That would be true if the playing field were equal, if it were level. If all things were honorable. But the truth of the matter is that this country knows so little about what truly went on in slavery, black and white, that we're still living out its mistakes. We're still living out its principles, we're still living out its culture in -- in very hard ways.

KING: Indianapolis, Indiana -- hello.

CALLER: Hello. I'm calling to tell Mr. Harry how much I admire him for taking a stand, and I'm also an African-American, and I would wonder if he had an opportunity, would he serve politics, that he would make a difference to us because we need somebody to take a stand.

KING: Would you ever run yourself, Harry?

BELAFONTE: Well, I was put upon once to run for the Senate in the United States of America against D'Amato, as a matter of fact, and a lot of people thought that I stood a good chance to make a race out of it.

I stepped away from that because I genuinely believed that the platform that I have as an artist, the work that I do with the United Nations, sits above suspicion because I have no agenda, so to speak. I don't serve a political party. And I thought that my service to the things that I believe in and to this nation that I deeply believe in, was best served by staying where I was.

KING: Did the Academy Awards this year impress you, two black Americans winning the top two awards?

BELAFONTE: Well, I'm always pleased when black Americans are rewarded for some achievement. I'm always very suspicious, however, and I look very carefully at what does the award dismiss? What does it suggest is correct when, in fact, so much is incorrect? And I think that, you know, there are a lot of people who just said, for instance, Hollywood is not above the issue of discussing what goes on with racism. And one day, we should get into that debate about how blacks really think about what's going on in the culture of this country.

KING: You mean blacks are not telling us what -- many blacks you know are not telling us what they really think?

BELAFONTE: I'll tell you this, Larry, many black people still live out the -- the facade of the minstrel. We wear a mask. Much of what we say and what we do is done in metaphor, and done with subtext and other meaning, because we have not had the best of experiences when you go straight to the heart of the problems in this country, because this nation becomes so punitive when it hears the truth about us.

KING: You discussed this with your old friend Sidney Poitier?

BELAFONTE: Yes, Sidney and I have talked about it from time to time. We've not talked...

KING: He's not the activist you are.

BELAFONTE: No, he's not. Nor does he have to be. Nor does he have to be.

KING: You don't criticize him for not being as active as you.

BELAFONTE: No, no, no, no. No, no, no. I don't criticize him for not being -- people make choices they want to make. That's the point here in a way. We must be held responsible for the choices that we make. I'm not holding Colin Powell responsible for something about Colin Powell as -- as a man. It's about the things that he embraces, and the policies that he serves. That's the problem.

KING: I remember the first time I saw Harry Belafonte on stage -- "New Faces of '52," Leonard Sillman, "Hold 'Em Joe." Right? You were holding a rope.

BELAFONTE: No, wrong. (singing) Wrong show, Larry.

KING: What was it?

BELAFONTE: It was, as a matter of fact, a lot of people confuse it, it was "John Murray Anderson's Almanac With..."

KING: "Almanac." Right.


KING: Morristown, New Jersey, for Harry Belafonte -- hello.

Hello. Mr. Belafonte, I heard you just the last segment talking about the fact that you are against the future killing of innocent American boys under the new -- this administration's new policy.

I'm the mother of a 23-year-old boy that was killed on -- Tower One because he was an American citizen. I really don't see where you think that you are -- this has happened already. Our boys have been killed.

I feel that you're talking first as a black man, as an American secondly, and that's saddens me and I think it would be sadden all of us -- the 3,000 families whose people were mowed down because we were Americans trying to live the American dream. My boy was killed because he went to work. And I just wish you would address that.

BELAFONTE: I served in the United States Armed Forces and the United States Navy during the second World War as a munitions loader.

I've also served some of the most remarkable Americans of our century. I was embraced with and worked for Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Paul Robeson. When you take a look at men like Martin Luther King, with whom I marched and served, and the more recent history, people of the moral stature, of people like Nelson Mandela.

I sit and I grieve with each and every American who lost some loved one on 9/11. And I also sit and grieve with every American mother who lost some son to the Ku Klux Klan. Tyranny is not exclusive in the experience of Americans just to 9/11. A lot of people have known terror and terrorism. It's a sad thing.

And I'm not first black and then American. I've always been and will be first American and then whatever I happen to be, like the mosaic that makes up this country.

And I'm sorry if what I have said and the way in which I interpret our policy offends you to the degree you think I am ignorant of and willing to dismiss the death and the pain that our nation feels. As a matter of fact, quite the contrary. It is precisely the pain that I know that this nation feels that I dread seeing us go through more of it, to lose more sons, more daughters, because we are being ill advised on how to deal with the ills of the nation.

Deal with hunger. Deal with poverty. Deal with disenfranchisement which is rampant among the 6 billion people who make up this planet. I see most of them. I spent time in Rwanda where 800,000 people were murdered in a matter of months. Violence is not mutiny, it's not new to the world. We've got to stop it and I make a plea for it.

And I hope we can find policies and thinkers and people who will come to their senses and lead us out of this abyss.

KING: I only got a minute left but I want to ask you a question about rap music and it uses the "N" word a lot. There's a lot of denigration of women in music. You have any thoughts on it as a proponent of free speech?

BELAFONTE: Yes, I think it's somewhat shoddy that we're constantly evoking free speech in the face of immoral, unethical conduct. If I had the choice of what to do about free speech, I'd fight to the death to maintain it. Even in the face of these transgressions.

But because there are a lot of people spinning off profit from denouncing their mothers, their daughters, putting themselves in their most degraded level of our social experience, and having it rewarded by the larger society is certainly not a way of working ourselves into a greater and more noble fabric of culture and human relationships.

KING: So, Harry, in essence, you are glad you have restructured the dialogue.

I'm very glad to have been given the opportunity to at least explain my point of view more fully.

You know, there are a lot of "N" words and there are ways in which to deify someone or to vilify someone like Colin Powell. That was never the intention. The idea that you work in the house of the master is almost in itself its own opportunity to do some mischief and to make a difference.

But when you are in that place and you help perpetuate the master's policy that perpetuates oppression and pain for many others, then something has to be said about it.

KING: Thank you, Harry, as always.

BELAFONTE: The master in this instance is, of course, the president of the United States.

KING: Good seeing you, as always, and thanks for doing this.

BELAFONTE: Thank you very much, Larry, for having me.

KING: Harry Belafonte, the famed entertainer, humanitarian and activist, and his point of view.


The complete CNN report on their exclusive story is also available at


Your comments are welcome. Visit the Contact Us page for E-mail or Feedback.



Bookmark and Share
Issue Number 14
October 17, 2002





If someone passed along to you make sure you visit the Free Sign Up page.

Don't miss anything!


Other commentaries in this issue:

Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency

Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnson’s message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue dog...The Trojan Horse TV show

Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid and more...

IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr. David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator

A Jewish Peace Activist on Baraka’s Poem: Urban Legends by Rachael Kamel, Guest Commentator

e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire busted...Anglo-Saxon alarmed

Interview: Educate and Advocate - Henry Nicholas on social justice in America

Commentaries in Issue 13 October 3 , 2002:

Lantern of Liberty:
Harriet Tubman Mural Replaced by a Parking Lot

BET's Black Billionaire Trojan Horse:
"Democrat" Bob Johnson Fronts For GOP

Black Children Still Victimized by "Savage Inequalities":
Public education amid racism and isolation
by Elena Rutherford, Guest Commentator

Black political self-financing
Senator Ed Brooke mislaid
Hip Hop and heroin
Anglo-Saxons beware

A letter to our readers:
Black America and Bush's New World Order

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.