Harry Belafonte to speak at Purdue Martin Luther King Jr. celebration


Harry Belafonte, singer, songwriter, actor and social activist, on Jan. 17 will keynote the Purdue University celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The theme of the 2017 celebration is The Fierce Urgency of Now: Where Do We Go from Here?

“It will be a true honor to welcome such a tremendous artist, who, just as importantly, has also been a strong and active supporter of civil rights throughout his life, to Purdue,” said Deba Dutta, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity. “I cannot think of anyone more appropriate to be our MLK speaker this year.”

Belafonte, the first black performer to win an Emmy Award and the first recording artist to sell over a million copies of a single album with “Calypso” in 1956, featuring his hit “Day-O,” will give the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address at 7 p.m. in Stewart Center’s Loeb Playhouse. It is free and open to the public.

“Harry Belafonte exposed America to world music and has spent his life challenging and overturning racial barriers around the globe,” said Renee Thomas, director of Purdue’s Black Cultural Center and co-chair of the Martin Luther King Planning Committee. “We’re very excited to have such an inspirational and legendary performer and activist as our keynote speaker.”

Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte spent time with his maternal grandmother in Jamaica before returning to Harlem for high school. After a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, Belafonte returned to New York City where he worked as a janitor’s assistant.

Belafonte first encountered the theater when he was given a ticket to a production at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem for doing repairs in an apartment. Soon after, he joined the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research, with classmates such as Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, and became immersed in theater. Paralleling this pursuit was his interest and love of jazz.

Belafonte met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on King’s visit to New York City in the early 1950s. Belafonte and King developed a deep and abiding friendship, and Belafonte played a key role in the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington.

In 1985, disturbed by war, drought and famine in Africa, Belafonte helped organize the Grammy-winning song “We Are the World,” a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa. Belafonte was active in efforts to end apartheid in South Africa and to release Nelson Mandela.

Belafonte served as the cultural adviser for the Peace Corps, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was honored as an Ambassador of Conscience by Amnesty International. Recently, Belafonte founded the Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, a nonprofit social justice organization that combines the power of culture and celebrity with activism. It is a space for artists to contribute their talents to build awareness and confront the issues that negatively affect marginalized communities.

He received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2014.

“Belafonte is a strong advocate for civil rights and a key activist for social justice. It is an honor that he’ll give the keynote address at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Purdue,” said Maryann Santos, dean of the College of Education and co-chair of Purdue’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee.

Belafonte’s talk will be preceded by a 6 p.m. candlelight vigil and march from the BCC to Loeb Playhouse, hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

In addition, the Purdue Dreamer Award will be presented at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 during the Belafonte event. The award is presented annually to an individual or organization in the Purdue community whose contributions embody King’s vision of service to others and furthers the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Nominations for the award are being accepted until Dec. 31. More information, including submission forms and a list of previous recipients, can be found at http://www.purdue.edu/dro/mlk, or contact Carolyn E. Johnson, director of the Diversity Resource Office, at 765-494-7307, cjohnson1@purdue.edu.

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