NEW YORK CITY — “When Martin Luther King Jr. began to respond to the demands for justice, one of the first persons he called upon was Harry Belafonte,” said Andrew Young, a top aide to King, former congressman and United Nations ambassador. Young was introducing Belafonte at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy annual benefit here on June 8, which honored Belafonte and Arianna Huffington for “Speaking Truth to Power.”

Actor, humanitarian and musician, Belafonte ranks among the most popular performers of the postwar era. Raised in Jamaica and the U.S., Belafonte’s success as an artist has never eclipsed his passion for justice and human rights.

King once said: “Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement in America.”

Besides working closely with King on civil rights issues, Belafonte played a seminal role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

In introducing Belafonte, Young paid tribute to the labor movement in New York and labor leaders such as Dave Livingston and Cleveland Robinson, who were instrumental in raising funds for the civil rights movement. He said Belafonte was vital in making the connection between the labor and civil rights movements and was relied on for organizing such strategies.

Speaking at the award banquet, Belafonte cautioned about the tendency to see victories as the result of “divine intervention.” This, he said, robs us of the lessons of great strategists such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Pointing out that such lessons create the power and opportunity for others to follow, Belafonte pointed out that one of the important things “was that [civil rights leaders] sat in a position of morality and truth — the power of morality, activism. We were centered around something that could not be morally defeated.” He said the movement confronted leaders like Robert Kennedy and others with moral truth and they could not resist it.

In her acceptance speech, columnist Huffington said that speaking out against the injustice of the war in Iraq is one of the critical moral issues of our time. Invoking Belafonte’s point about moral truth, she pointed out the recently released Washington Post poll showing that 58 percent of the American people think the war in Iraq was unjust. Yet, “you don’t have a single major national, democratically elected leader saying that,” Huffington said. She drew attention to the huge sums spent on the war in Iraq and “the neglected priorities here at home.” Formerly with the ultra-right, Huffington now calls for a “critical mass” of progressives to defeat the ultra-right.

The Drum Major Institute was founded in 1999 by William Wachtel, the son of Harry Wachtel, lawyer and adviser to King during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. Its name is derived from a recurring theme in King’s speeches: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. … I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

A national progressive think tank, the Drum Major Institute seeks to follow in the footsteps of King through promoting the nation’s democratic values by eliminating the “injustices rooted in ignorance or repression of those values.” Its predecessor, the Drum Major Foundation, played a role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.