As a young man, Blanton Belk was given some simple advice by his father that he couldn’t ignore. It was that advice that set him on a course that would change his life and literally tens of thousands of others.
“My father was my mentor. He was a Presbyterian minister and he always told me growing up, ‘son, if possible, do what you can to affect the whole world,” he recalled.
And boy, did he ever. Belk, who is related to the founders of the department store, first went and served his country in World War II. He navigated a PC boat and received a letter of commendation from the Secretary of the Navy. He also went to college, attending the University of North Carolina at Davidson. Belk made his way into the world and during the turbulent 1960s, his path took a turn.
“It was the summer of 1965 and the youth were exploding ... very much like they are today. There were turmoil everywhere from Columbia in New York to South Africa to San Marcus in Peru. They weren’t listening to their parents, the deans or the pastors. Nixon went out and tried to reason with them and they booed him back into the White House,” Belk said.
But Belk, who had just turned 30, wanted to hear what these college students had to say.
“They didn’t trust anyone over 30 so I just made it in ... but they were very good about articulating what they were against but no one really knew what they were for ... so we organized a summer conference. We called seven student body leaders from places like Clemson, Oregon State, Duke and Michigan and invited them to the conference. And they came. We invited other young people too and 1,000 came out to Mackinac Island, Michigan. We had us a hootenanny. We had tents and we told them there were no rules other than them telling us what they were against and what they were for ... what do you want to build as responsible men and women?,” Belk said.
They discovered that the students were very much for Civil Rights and very much against the Vietnam War. And during the conference they found creative ways, namely music, to express that.
“Long story short, we put together a rough show that expressed those ideas. We decided to go out to Cape Cod and do the show. Some of the Kennedys who lived there came out and a certain senator from Iowa said ‘you have to take this show to D.C.,’” he said. “So then we took the show to Washington and 5,000 people came out. From there, we just took a leap of faith.”
What was first known as the Modernizing America Conference morphed into the Up with People initiative. Belk formed the organization and focused the mission on building an international cast of students, ranging from 18 to 29 years old, who travel the world to share their culture and promote peace.
“A lot of students from other countries came to Mackinac Island that summer so the idea became to build this global entity. We wanted to bring the youth of the world together to speak,” he said.
The group travelled, sponsored by host families, to perform songs that celebrated their culture and helped build relationships. They even performed many times at the Super Bowl in the 1970s. Since then, thousands of cast members have come through the program, including Belk’s two daughters. One such cast will be stopping in Brunswick for a classic performance at 7 p.m. March 28 at Brunswick High School. The professionally-produced show will feature songs and dancing from international cast members.
And while that might seem like a big impact on the world as a whole, Belk said connecting these international participants allows less room for hostility and war.
“Now, 53 years later, we have 22,000 alumni stretched around the world, in 135 countries. So now there are people in 135 countries who will not kill each other or go to war. So it’s a small little drop of peace, but we got it and we will continue to multiply these little things to create a global village.”
In the 1960s and the immediate decades that followed, creating connections were far more difficult. But today, the technology allows that to happen much more easily. That helps the movement grow and evolve today, Belk said.
“I think technology is certainly the biggest way it’s changed. The world has gotten smaller. It makes it easier to reach the youth. But they are still interested in the same kinds of things. They are still interested in music and we use that as the vehicle to express our idea ... it goes across languages,” he said. “We want to increase the number of people around the world who share this common experience. I think that globally we have big challenges and what we’ve done many times in Ireland for instance is bring groups together ... like the Protestants and Catholics. We want to change how people look at the world and show them how to get along with people who are not like us. That’s true for congressman, senators and presidents ... all of us must learn how to get along with people who aren’t like us.”
Creating unity between those who are different will continue to expand Belk’s vision of a more peaceful planet. That more than anything is what the now-93 year old Belk hopes will continue as Up with People’s legacy.
“I dream a lot ... but that is an element that I am still very proud of after 53 years. It is essentially a global leadership program but it is completely independent ... there’s no military or state department or anything connected to it. There’s nothing ‘behind it’ ... just you and me,” he said.