Harry Belafonte leveraged stardom for social change, his highly effective voice all the time singing a music for justice

Harry Belafonte leveraged stardom for social change, his highly effective voice all the time singing a music for justice

In Could 1963, as civil rights demonstrations rocked town of Birmingham, Alabama, Harry Belafonte was at a cocktail social gathering in Manhattan, scolding the then-Legal professional Common of america.

“It’s possible you’ll suppose you’re doing sufficient,” he recalled telling Robert F. Kennedy, “however you don’t dwell with us, you don’t even go to our ache.”

Belafonte had many frank and heated conversations with Bobby Kennedy. Actually, the singer, actor and activist was on intimate phrases with many pivotal figures of the civil rights period.

He was a confidant and adviser to Martin Luther King and allied with Ahmed Sékou Touré, the president of Guinea. He funded the grassroots activists of the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as they battled Jim Crow and introduced a delegation of Hollywood stars to the March on Washington. Alongside together with his finest pal and sometimes-rival, actor Sidney Poitier, Belafonte delivered funds to civil rights volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi, whereas the Ku Klux Klan watched their each transfer.

Belafonte, who died on April 25, 2023, on the age of 96, was a singular determine within the historical past of the Black freedom battle within the U.S. No different entertainer immersed themselves so deeply within the civil rights motion; no different activist occupied a distinct segment at so many ranges of American politics. If he was a strong voice for justice, it was as a result of he leveraged his celeb.

Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte within the 1954 movie ‘Carmen Jones.’
Silver Display screen Assortment/Getty Pictures

A outstanding profession

On stage, he was one thing to behold, a beacon of charisma. Clad in body-hugging shirts together with his chest naked, drawing his viewers’s eyes to the looping steel rings on the belt of his tight silk pants, he oozed with seduction. Girls swooned.

And he was wildly profitable. In 1957, Belafonte bought extra information than Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. His repertoire resembled neither Sinatra’s basic pop nor Presley’s up-and-coming rock and roll.

The son of West Indian/Carribean immigrants, he impressed a short-lived craze for calypso music because of hits equivalent to “Day O” and “Jamaica Farewell,” and he tailored ethnic people music for common consumption – his mainstays included “Hava Nagila,” the Jewish celebration music.

He additionally starred in Hollywood movies equivalent to “Vivid Highway” (1953) and “Carmen Jones” (1955). “Island within the Solar,” launched in 1957, brought about a furor. Although he by no means kisses his white co-star, Joan Fontaine, on display, the movie explores the theme of interracial romance. The southern censors banned it.

Belafonte danced across the taboos of race and intercourse. This exceptionally good-looking Black man was charming primarily white audiences, although his gentle pores and skin shade and facial options softened that risk. As a performer, he nudged at racial boundaries with out jabbing by them.

“Harry Belafonte stands on the peak of one of many outstanding careers in U.S, leisure,” proclaimed Time Journal in a 1959 cowl function. He had come a great distance from a childhood break up between Harlem and Jamaica, from stints within the Navy and as a struggling actor. By then, he was incomes about US$750,000 a 12 months, with a profitable residency on the Riviera Resort in Las Vegas.

Civil rights activism

That stardom related Belafonte to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The civil rights chief known as him in 1956 in the course of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Quickly Belafonte was a part of the motion itself. Following King, he embraced nonviolence. As their friendship strengthened, Belafonte realized the crosses that King bore: the burden of management, the concern of loss of life.

Two black men dressed in business suits are shaking hands and smiling.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte shaking palms on Aug. 21, 1964 at JFK Worldwide Airport.
AFP through Getty Pictures

Belafonte purchased a 21-room residence on West Finish Avenue in Manhattan. “Martin would come to think about it as his dwelling away from dwelling, staying with us on a lot of his New York journeys,” he recalled in his memoir, “My Track.”

“From time to time, he introduced with him two or three of his closest advisers, and by the mid-sixties, the residence was one of many motion’s headquarters.” It was a spot to each plan technique and blow off steam, laughing at tales and sipping Harveys Bristol Cream.

Sarcastically, for such a public determine, a lot of Belafonte’s work was in non-public.

Within the Sixties, he served as a necessary hyperlink between King and SNCC. He not solely bankrolled the younger militant activists, but additionally listened to their issues, revered their organizing efforts and communicated their views to influential energy brokers.

A black man is smiling as he looks into the distance.
The ‘King of Calypso’ shortly earlier than his fiftieth birthday in 1976.
Erin Combs/Toronto Star through Getty Pictures

That accountability to talk for the motion led Belafonte to chide Bobby Kennedy in Could 1963. All through the early Sixties, he expressed frustration with the Legal professional Common’s detachment from the activists’ battle. However over time, he got here to understand Kennedy’s evolution, as he turned a U.S. senator and emerged as a voice for the poor, for racial minorities, for “The Different America.”

Famously, in February 1968, Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Present” for every week, utilizing his platform to light up Black views and highlight social injustice. His company included King, who was about to launch his Poor Individuals’s Marketing campaign, and Kennedy, whom Belafonte urged to start out a presidential marketing campaign.

Inside months, each males had been assassinated.

For greater than a half-century, Belafonte carried on the legacy of the Sixties, usually taking provocative positions from the far-left fringe of the political spectrum. Like few others, he blended the worlds of tradition and politics, singing a music of justice.

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