The Friday before actor and activist Harry Belafonte stepped in for a week to guest host the Tonight show on February 5, 1968, the New York Times front page featured an inadvertent curtain opener to Belafonte’s project—and to the entire year. In the paper’s crucial top right news slot, Eddie Adams’s brutal photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong soldier grabbed the reader. It illustrated a grim story with this heraldic headline: street clashes go on in vietnam, foe still holds parts of cities, johnson vows never to yield. Across the page to the left, we learned that Lyndon Johnson sought “Pay-Price Curbs and Rise In Tax,” to pay for his widening Vietnam adventure. From the slot right next to that troubling Johnson story, Richard Nixon beams. “Nixon Announces For Presidency,” the paper reports.
That was early February 1968, in black and white. And it was the whole story of 1968, as it turned out. That Friday front page announced the end of the racial- and political-justice experiment known as the 1960s. But nobody knew it yet. So on Monday night, February 5, Harry Belafonte introduced Senator Bobby Kennedy to his Tonight audience, hoping Kennedy would make news by declaring his presidential candidacy (he did it six weeks later). They talked complicated 1968 politics: black nationalism, Appalachian despair, and outrage that LBJ was already secretly surrendering in the war—the war on poverty, that is. The war in Vietnam, however, was escalating—that weekend had brought the Tet Offensive. Kennedy despaired of bringing the war to a quick close, although he and Belafonte wanted an end to it. “The views that I represent, I don’t think are supported by anything other than a minority of people in the United States,” the senator told the host.
Four days later, Belafonte sat behind Carson’s desk with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the couch to his right. At the other end, Ed McMahon grinned while Paul Newman listened earnestly. They discussed King’s planned Poor People’s Campaign, the need to join issues of race, class, and poverty, and the preacher’s thoughts about the many threats to his life. For a whole week, Belafonte introduced us to his multiracial friends and political collaborators, from Wilt Chamberlain to Zero Mostel, Melina Mercouri and Leon Bibb, Newman and Aretha Franklin, 25 guests in all, most of them African American. They sang, danced, told jokes, argued politics, and introduced the coming multiracial America to itself. For that one week in February, Dr. King’s beloved community came to life. Belafonte—with his talent, charisma, political values, and connections—willed it into being. We seemed to have made it to the mountaintop King talked about—the cultural mountaintop, anyway, and King got to that with us, at least.
Within a few months, King and then Kennedy were assassinated, the Democratic Party came apart, the civil-rights movement splintered; the bloody war all three men opposed went on for five more years. Richard Nixon, the man who smiled from the front page of the February 2 New York Times, became president. In many ways, we still live in Richard Nixon’s America. Donald Trump honed Nixon’s dark themes of “law and order,” his calls to the silent majority, his talent for pitting groups against one another. (He may also have borrowed Nixon’s weakness from cheating in elections as well as obstructing justice, and he may face a similar disgraced end to his presidency.)
Still, I hold on to that magical week—or more correctly, it holds on to me. I wrote about it last year here in The Nation. I talked about how the story had haunted me for four years, from the last chapters of the Barack Obama experiment to the opening months of the Donald Trump apocalypse. The story’s publication almost a year ago opened new doors, of all kinds. My friends Joy Reid of MSNBC and filmmaker Valerie Thomas approached me about making a documentary about the week. If we do it, God willing, it will come out long after this year in which we’ll celebrate and mourn so many ’68 anniversaries. So I’m compelled, once again, to make sure more people know about The Week That Was. Why it was so important: how Belafonte’s work captured the texture of that year—the opportunities offered, the opportunities blown; hope alongside despair. A sense that the problems of race and poverty were tougher than maybe we thought earlier in the ’60s; a dawning awareness that not as many people cared about those problems as needed to.
I’ve been blessed, over this year, to have a chance to talk again to Belafonte, about what the week meant to him, to the civil-rights movement, to the coalition of progressive entertainers he led, and to the nation. Approaching 91, still active, he’s besieged by requests for interviews, speaking opportunities, political advice, to travel globally to receive awards. He nonetheless sat down with the three of us, and we feel a grave responsibility to bring those words to the world. Also, after my Nation piece ran, Johnny Carson’s former secretary Ginny Heyl Beauregard reached out. Then a 23-year-old aspiring dancer, political activist, and Belafonte fan, she brought us the ad in Variety Belafonte purchased to thank the Carson show staff and his guests for participating in his week-long “sit-in,” reminding us that Belafonte knew just how radical his nightly presence had been. Everyone who worked on that week who is still with us has given or promised their time—Dionne Warwick shared memories of Belafonte as not just a brilliant entertainer but also a friend and political mentor, helping her choose causes and events where she could make a difference.
What have we learned in this year? That we have an ever-greater responsibility to tell this story. So many people worked so hard to get us here. We are in danger not merely of failing to advance their work; we are in danger of letting their work be reversed. Examining that fateful week, I feel like we can see the very moment that the tide turns, from coming in, to going out; witness the nanosecond when a hinge begins to swing a door from open to shut, when opportunities and minds began to close. We see brave men and women, Belafonte’s guests, who were still propelled by their mid-1960s wins, on civil rights and women’s rights, still working for justice, not knowing how close they were to the end of one of the most optimistic, epochal, transformative periods in American history. We want to bring them back to life, in conversation with Belafonte—and with us. We want to introduce them to a new generation of artists, activists, sports figures, and entertainers who likewise see injustice, who feel a dawning responsibility for a culture and politics that’s been degraded, who want to understand and claim the heritage that is theirs.
We are three busy women with about nine jobs among us, so we are having a hard time getting this project done, but we will do it. It’s occurred to me I’m writing this piece to kick my own butt, to bump this work up above Twitter and Facebook and Netflix binge-watching on my priority list. (I would also love to hear from viewers who remember that week personally.) But most of all I’m writing because I don’t want this day to pass without remembering it, without saying thank you to Harry Belafonte and his many partners in that “sit-in” 50 years ago. I am honored to be shadowed by this story.