Just a week after a controversial trip to Latin America to express solidarity with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, singer and activist Harry Belafonte delivered the keynote address for Duke's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, sparking both praise and dissension. Belafonte addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Duke Chapel, receiving frequent applause and a standing ovation. In his speech, he shared anecdotes about King, criticized the Bush administration, spoke of the struggles of black and poor people, and cast his own life as a moral crusade.
"Harry Belafonte's talk was one of the most profound history lessons you could have had," says Willie Jennings, a co-chair of the university's King celebration committee and a dean in the Divinity School. "For a student to hear that is a once-in-a-lifetime."
Not everyone agreed. The Duke Conservative Union took out an ad in The Chronicle contrasting King's calls for unity and civility with Belafonte's criticisms of Bush administration members. Writing online in FrontPage Magazine, junior Steve Miller, president of the Duke chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, said, "It's a sad and troubling thing to see a packed house celebrating this man and his hate, believing and reveling in his every word.
"It speaks horrendously of the university, especially in light of the four previous left-wing radicals to give the MLK address, that Belafonte would be unanimously selected."
Responding to such criticisms on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes show, John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said, "The best way to counter what people don't like about what Mr. Belafonte might say is to go back with counterarguments. And, at the end of the day, as a result of those discussions, you have what's called education."
Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity at Duke and one of the co-chairs of the university's King celebration committee, says he was pleased with the crowds at commemoration events, adding that next year, he will "think creatively about how to engage the conservative students."
Belafonte Uplifts, Angers
March 31, 2006