The Washington Post

Harry Belafonte challenges Phi Beta Sigma to join movement to stop oppression of women

Actor and activist Harry Belafonte is inducted into Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity during its centennial celebration Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. -- Photo Courtesy of Meredith B. Jackson, Centennial Project Manager, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.
Actor and activist Harry Belafonte is inducted into Phi Beta Sigma fraternity during its centennial celebration Saturday at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington. (Meredith B. Jackson, centennial project manager, Phi Beta Sigma)

Actor, singer and human rights advocate Harry Belafonte called on Phi Beta Sigma during the fraternity’s Centennial Founders’ Day Gala Saturday night in Washington to join a worldwide movement to end the violence and oppression against women

Belafonte, who is well known for his historical contributions to the civil rights movement, was keynote speaker during the gala at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington. Earlier that night, Belafonte was inducted as an honorary member  into the fraternity, one of the largest men’s organizations in the world.

“My contribution as a new member of the fraternity is to sucker all of you into coming with me and man up and stand up. When the time comes, we will be in touch and you will be informed to join us in the this movement in the 21st century,” Belafonte told a crowd of more than 1,000 people. “Let us use this century to be the century where we say we started the mission to end the violence and oppression of women.”

Belafonte, 86, who for more than 70 years has fought against racial oppression, recently created an organization called Sankofa Justice & Equity Fund, a nonprofit focused on social justice and helping marginalized people throughout the world.

“Sankofa is a bird, a symbol that comes out of West African mythology,” Belafonte told the crowd. “It is a Guinea hen with its beak and its neck gracefully turned to the rear of its body and it is retrieving an egg from space. Mythology says the truth is forever accessible. If you think you have lost it, it can be retrieved.”

Belafonte challenged the fraternity to use its motto of  “service to do the thing that has now been adopted by Sankofa,” with projects in South Africa, the Congo, Nigeria, Berlin, London, Paris and New York.

Activists are “gathering now to say, ‘Man up. All men who are stepping into this moment to say, ‘We will accept the responsibility for what we have done in the abuse of women and we acknowledge that abuse and we are here to declare ourselves as the tenders to the future to never, ever let our children be the abusers of women in our lifetime.’ ”

The crowd rose in applause.

Belafonte urged those gathered to join “the 21st century mission to focus on the plight of the savagery and brutalization of women in some parts of the world — not only the brutalization of those in war– but the brutalization of domestic application…. brutalizing women continually. It is men who created violence against women. It is men who should end the violence against women.”

Jonathan A. Mason, international president of Phi Beta Sigma, said, “I accept your challenge and we will make a difference in the community.”

Actor Malik Yoba, the gala’s master of ceremonies, told the crowd: “That was rich. We just heard from someone who has lived history.”

I wrote about this issue for The Washington Post in a 2006 article telling the story of a young woman who was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army  in northern Uganda, where the girl spent years in captivity as a sex slave.  “Pretty girls are given to older commanders as wives; the others are often killed,” Grace Akallo told me while visiting Capitol Hill, where she urged Congress to stop the civil conflict in Uganda.

In 2004, I also  interviewed political rape victims in Haiti, where human rights lawyers contended women were targeted in the political violence.  In  2008, The Post ran the story of  Lisa F. Jackson, whose chilling documentary,  “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” debuted on HBO that year. In the documentary, Jackson talked to a group of men who told her rape “was necessary” to weaken their enemies.

“If she says no, I must take her by force. If she is strong, I’ll call some of my friends to help me,” a man told the filmmaker. “All this is happening because of the war. We would live a normal life and treat women naturally if there was no war.”

A woman told Jackson that rape victims often must flee their villages to hide their shame. “After we’ve been raped, our men don’t want us anymore. We are considered half-human beings,” a woman confided to Jackson and her camera.

During the gala, the fraternity, founded at Howard University on Jan. 9, 1914, also honored Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); civil rights activist  Al Sharpton;  civil rights leader C.T. Vivian; former congressman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.);  Freedom Rider Hank Thomas; advocate against homelessness and hunger Elisabeth Williams-Omilami; and Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Each speaker challenged the crowd to do more to help the poor, the hungry, those in prison and those who are oppressed.

“That space between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider,” Williams-Omilami, president of Hosea Williams Feed the Homeless & Hungry, told the crowd.  “Atlanta is the worst city for homeless children in the country. I feed 61,000 people a year…. I will continue the fight to feed our hungry children … because it is our job and  that is what Sigma means.”

Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders, recalled being trapped in a burning bus as an angry mob sealed the doors to prevent the riders from escaping. Their choice was to stay on a burning bus or flee into a mob where they knew they would be beaten.

“Memories don’t leave like people do,” Thomas told the gala crowd. “They always stay with you.”

Thomas added: “When they ask me why I joined the Freedom Riders, I will tell them with the eloquence of my grandfather, ‘I saw something wrong and I done something about it.’ “

Vivian challenged the fraternity to do more to help the men and women in prison. “We’ve got a million black men in jail, and we are not doing anything about it,” Vivian said. “If you save those who can be saved you will have done the maximum in society… The reason we have any organization is to save the rest of us.”

Lewis, who received the Sigma Centennial Lifetime Achievement Award, recalled traveling into the South as a Freedom Rider during “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 in Selma, Ala., where he was  beaten.

“I just tried to help,” said Lewis, who led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “When people say nothing has changed all these years later, I say, ‘Come and walk in our shoes.’”

But Lewis, who was the youngest speaker during the 1963 March on Washington, said there is still work to be done to end oppression. “To all the brothers of Phi Beta Sigma, I say find a way to get in trouble. Get into some good trouble.”

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.

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