A humanitarian known as much for his social justice advocacy as he is for the musical and acting career that originally fueled his fame, Harry Belafonte has for decades been a leading voice on issues from the civil rights battles of the 1960s to South African apartheid to the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy.
This year, he announced in a speech Saturday night, he has a new focus: ending the oppression of women worldwide.
And he's calling on black men to take the lead.
The 86-year-old, once known as the "King of Calypso"—and most recently in the headlines for his pointed criticism of racial disparities in New York City's "Dickensenian" policing policies—delivered the keynote address at a Washington, D.C., gala celebrating the 100th anniversary of the African-American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma.
"Let us use this century to be the century when we said we started the mission to end the violence and oppression of women," he urged the group, after being inducted as an honorary member. "Let us never, ever let our children become the abusers to our women that we permitted in our lifetime."
Belafonte lamented what he called "global indifference" to the brutalization of women and said he hoped to raise awareness about the issue in a way similar to that with which the 1985 charity single "We Are the World" drew broad attention to global hunger.
He told The Root that his campaign to end violence against women was motivated by events in the Congo, in South Africa and in "the inordinate rise of domestic violence" worldwide.
"I think that the men of this fraternity and black men in general should put at the top of our agenda our concerns for bringing greater equilibrium for the community," he said.
Belafonte, who was reportedly heckled at last week's New York Film Critics Circle Awards after his remarks praising director Steve McQueen for his work on 12 Years a Slave, is well-known for an outspoken stance on social and political issues.
Last year, he placed himself at the center of debates about the obligations—if any—of today's black artists, when he named Jay Z and Beyoncé among celebrities who he said had "turned their back on social responsibility."
"No one has been spared this man's social criticism," noted master of ceremonies and New York Undercover actor Malik Yoba. He accepted, on behalf of the fraternity, Belafonte's call to action and his stance that "Men, who created violence against women are the ones who should end violence against women."
Belafonte's remarks also asked the men to direct their attention to criminal justice and racial disparities in policing and incarceration.
"If you look at what's happening to our young people, and the rapid growth of the prison system, and the fact that almost 90 percent of all the men and women serving in the prison systems in America are people of color," he said, " I don't think we can just sit by and let that statistic linger."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.