It was a day that felt familiar but I didn’t know why. Looking out the balcony, I just came from empowering the children and scrolling on my phone. Then boom, I saw the news that Mr. B. died. On April 25, 2023, at the age of 96, in New York City, Harry Belafonte joined the ancestors.
I came to know Mr. Belafonte through the Ferguson Rebellion back in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014. We had been marching a while by that point so protestors were receptive to hearing a little long-term strategy. We were called into a meeting at a Hilton hotel by the revolutionary Reverend Sekou. Rev spotted me as one of the more serious ones and invited me, too, to the infamous meeting before the meeting.
He invited others, but I showed up first. It ended up just being Rev, Danny Glover, my barber/movement brother Sol and THE Harry Belafonte, in attendance. I mean, his wife and his daughter, Gina and Raoul Roach would come in from time to time to listen, learn and get clarity. But I think we all knew that this was his meeting. I think he learned from doing this a time or two or more.
Mr. B. was smooth in the beginning just like I heard him sound on TV before. As that raspy, stoic tone came right out, he wanted to talk strategy like a general being sent in to instruct us on what our orders were. But it didn’t go that way.
He would tell us a 1963 tactic and we would come back with a Ferguson tactic. Then he asked me, “Well what is labor doing?” And I responded, “Doing enough to look like you’re fighting but not doing enough so the winner won’t fight you next.”
Every civil rights strategy he fired at us, I countered with an upgraded 21st century version of it. So he wanted to hear more of the vision. Then, Danny Glover would come in with that global perspective that took our vision to a whole other level. It was amazing to see my boy Sol hold his own in debate with Mr. B. like that. Respectfully, of course. Mr. B. did hit me with a National General Strike scenario that sounded like something that could work now, but we were still working out the kinks. Our meeting ended with some elite-level storytelling riddled with history, politics and charisma that should be on the big screen one day. Then, the other protesters started to come in, one by one until the “official” meeting began.
As that raspy, stoic tone came right out, he wanted to talk strategy like a general.
You see, Mr. B. did what we all wanted from the “celebrities” of that era to do: Pull up and build with us. A few came, yeah, but not nearly enough considering how many rappers, athletes and musicians we got. Hell, considering the number of doctors, lawyers, politicians and business-minded people we got and didn’t come, it’s a shame. And not to drag the point further down the street, but with all the Black studies academics, Black gun enthusiasts, Black conscious community members and anyone else in between, the pulled-up gang offering all kinds of assistance to the struggle should’ve been strong. But it wasn’t.
A few did come in that way and not for a photo op. David Banner, J. Cole and Jesse Williams, to name a few. But for how many successful, influential and rich Black people we have in not only the U.S. but globally, if just one of y’all Negros would’ve dedicated just a couple hundred bands on Ferguson then Black people would be halfway free right now.
You see, Mr. B. did what we all wanted from the “celebrities” of that era to do: Pull up and build with us.
I believe that in my soul. And I truly believe that’s why Mr. B. showed up. Because I know for a fact that Mr. Belafonte knew that if the Black grassroots could link up and build a real, from-the-bottom-up movement with a few Black influential people who could and should fund and fuel the movement for our freedom, it would be over for the purveyors of injustice.
Mr. B knew there wouldn’t be many celebrities there. But if just the right number of our best and brightest came to lend their expertise back to our people, then we could really free ourselves. He saw it and spoke to it, so matter-of-factly that every time we spoke, he brought it up as if to say, “no matter what you young peoples’ 21st century strategy is, this part gotta be in it.” And to be clear, for the class over race Negros who bring too much theory and not enough practice to the Black freedom table: You end up derailing and delaying our freedom by always presenting a problem to every solution and not the other way around.
Now don’t get me wrong, Mr. B. did push us to vote, but he also spoke to the current and historical failures of the Democratic Party while not leaving out the same critiques of the Republican Party as well. He said that we also couldn’t just push bad politicians to vote better but to also remove and replace them with people right from the movement itself. Now that’s real accountability, he said while he leaned back with that Harlem swag sitting in his chair. He understood that even leaders needed leaders. In his radical politics, a leader could be someone who had a particular talent that you admired and respected them and their point of view on it. So much so that one could influence the other in their respective fields. And since the Black grassroots had a certain level of je ne sais quoi in the areas of organizing the race consciousness in our people, they would come to us to get a lead on how to help our people deal with a system that they too still deal with despite having a few commas in their bank accounts.
… he knew that by just him pulling up, in the midst of an uprising, it could and should move others with his stature…
Mr. B. knew that this relationship wasn’t always going to be smooth, but he embraced me even though we disagreed tactically on things. It was almost like he did this before in a past life. I mean, at his age, he done lived four times the life expectancy of Black men, coming from where we come from. I think that’s why he pulled up. It was that urgency. Like he knew that by just him pulling up, in the midst of an uprising, it could and should move others with his stature or greater for their own respective demographics of influence in the Black community to come and put their money where their heart, body and mind should be. On our people!
I’m not saying to compromise a quality life for your family or anything like that, but Black celebrities and influencers should be doing a whole lot more in the struggle than what they are currently doing. And he knew that they would only get there by really linking with the true leaders who had the ears and hearts of our people.
For those of us special enough to be summoned by him, he was a political strategist, funder and a real one.
He told me the names of some of the others who he just knew would come to Ferguson but became disappointed when almost all of them never showed up. So every time we met, I let him know who I was still building with and who still ain’t shown up yet.
For those of us who were blessed to be invited to a real meeting with Mr. B., you know what it was like. Even if it was the small, impromptu conversation where he would drop a few jewels because he knew you were one of us.
Think what it felt like when we heard the news that Mr. B. passed away. Because for the world, he was the singer, actor and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte. But for those of us special enough to be summoned by him, he was a political strategist, funder and a real one.
So I’m saying thank you, Mr. B, and I truly mean for everything. For the advice, the cups of tea, the money that got us through hard times, for the inside joke that only you, Danny Glover, Sol and I know. But most of all, for pulling up and building with some young bucks like only a real one would.
Rest In Power, Mr. B.
Tory Russell is a Ferguson Uprising Organizer, Internationally recognized Black Movement Leader and Director of Organizing for the International Black Freedom Alliance.
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