A red-faced state trooper hardly acknowledged Harry Belafonte before a 1967 performance at the University of Baltimore during heat of the civil rights movement.
After the show, part of a tour with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an envelope from the trooper awaited the famous black calypso singer and activist at the front desk of the fieldhouse. Inside were six bullets and a letter.
"After having met and heard Dr. King and you, I will never fire a weapon ever again," Belafonte said the trooper wrote. "I am forever grateful for this experience."
Belafonte, speaking Tuesday night to a history class — Citizenship & Freedom: The Civil Rights Era — at that same university, said that experience in Baltimore affected him more than any other during his time in the movement. He spoke about his friendship with King and shared insight into the leader's mind during his most trying days.
King had just finished a speech to a church congregation in Harlem when Belafonte met him for the first time.
Their initial meeting — 20 minutes the two had agreed to spend in the basement of the church talking about the beginnings of the movement — stretched into four hours of conversation about the direction of the movement.
King, who was just coming into prominence as an activist at the time, had reached out to Belafonte — best known for the "Banana Boat Song" ("Day-O") — in hopes of recruiting the New Yorker to his cause, Belafonte said.
"I had a global platform," Belafonte told the auditorium of students and guests. "I brought a lot of money, and I brought a lot of people with money. And I played that card. ... I was satisfied with doing that because I knew to what end I was playing it."
But King didn't just want celebrity and wealth on his side, Belafonte said.
"He wanted much more than money," he said. "He wanted my life."
Belafonte said he took up the mantle. When members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said that King was "playing the white man's game," Belafonte met with them at his New York apartment. He introduced them to King, who arrived as the students were lambasting him. Belafonte appealed to then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy for his support, a task he compared to "eating Mount Everest with a spoon."
During the Summer of Freedom, in 1964, he took members of the movement to Africa for a vacation from the chaos. There, they had a chance to relax but also to see governments run by other blacks and realize that their dreams of overcoming the oppression they fought in Birmingham and throughout the American South were attainable.
Belafonte recalled conferencing with civil rights leaders in his apartment to plan the Birmingham campaign. King was struggling with the idea that he might be leading people — children in particular — to their deaths.
Belafonte noticed a nervous tic of King's, a hiccup he would develop when he was anxious. Once plans were set for their trip to fight for equality in Alabama, he said, the hiccup vanished completely.
He finally asked King where it had gone before an appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1968.
"I made my peace with death," King replied.
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