In May 1963, as civil rights demonstrations shocked the city of Birmingham, AlabamaHarry Belafonte was at a cocktail party in Manhattan, berating the then-Attorney General of the United States.
“Maybe you think you’re doing enough,” he recalls Robert F. Kennedy“but you don’t live with us, you don’t even visit our pain.”
Belafonte had many candid and heated conversations with Bobby Kennedy. In fact, the singer, actor and activist was on intimate terms with many key figures of the civil rights era.
He was a confidant and advisor to Martin Luther King and connected with Ahmed Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea. He financed the grassroots activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) as they battled Jim Crow and brought a delegation of Hollywood stars to the March on Washington. Along with his best friend and sometimes rival, actor Sidney Poitier, Belafonte donated money to civil rights volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi, while the Ku Klux Klan watched every move.
Belafonte, who died on April 25, 2023, at the age of 96, was a unique figure in the history of the black freedom struggle in the US. No other entertainer delved so deeply into the civil rights movement; no other activist has occupied a niche at so many levels of American politics. If he was a powerful voice for justice, it was because he took advantage of his celebrity.
A remarkable career
On stage he was a feast for the eyes, a beacon of charisma. Dressed in tight, bare-chested shirts, drawing his audience’s eyes to the looped metal rings on the belt of his tight silk trousers, he oozed with temptation. Women swooned.
And he was hugely successful. In 1957, Belafonte sold more records than Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. His repertoire was neither like Sinatra’s classic pop nor Presley’s emerging rock and roll.
The son of West Indian/Caribbean immigrants, he inspired a short-lived craze for calypso music with hits like “Day O” And “Jamaica farewell”, and he adapted ethnic folk music for popular consumption – his mainstays included “Hava Nagila”, the Jewish holiday song.
He also acted in Hollywood movies such as “Bright road” (1953) and “Carmen Jones” (1955). “island in the sun”, released in 1957, caused a furor. Although he never kisses his white co-star, Joan Fontaine, on screen, the film explores the theme of interracial romance. Southern censors banned it.
Belafonte danced around the taboos of race and sex. This exceptionally handsome black man charmed mostly white audiences, though his fair complexion and features mitigated that threat. As an artist, he encountered racial boundaries without piercing them.
“Harry Belafonte is at the pinnacle of one of the most remarkable careers in the US, entertainment,” proclaimed Time Magazine in a 1959 cover story. He had come a long way from a childhood split between Harlem and Jamaica, from stints in the Navy and as a struggling actor. By then, he was making about $750,000 a year, with a lucrative residency at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
Civil rights activism
That stardom tied Belafonte to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The civil rights leader called him in 1956 during the Montgomery bus boycott. Soon Belafonte was part of the movement itself. Following King’s lead, he embraced nonviolence. As their friendship grew stronger, Belafonte realized the crosses King bore: the burden of leadership, the fear of death.
Belafonte bought a 21-room apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan. “Martin would come to think of it as his home away from home, staying with us on many of his trips to New York,” he recalled in his memoir, “My song.”
“Occasionally he would bring along two or three of his closest advisers, and by the mid-1960s the apartment was one of the headquarters of the movement.” It was a place to plan strategy as well as blow off steam, laugh at stories and sip Harveys Bristol Cream.
Ironically, for such a public figure, much of Belafonte’s work was private.
In the 1960s, he was an essential link between King and SNCC. He not only funded the young militant activists, but also listened to their concerns, respected their organizing efforts, and communicated their perspectives to influential people in power.
That responsibility to speak for the movement led Belafonte to reprimand Bobby Kennedy in May 1963. Throughout the early 1960s, he expressed his frustration with the Attorney General’s detachment from the activists’ struggle. But over time, he came to appreciate Kennedy’s evolution, as he became a US Senator and emerged as a voice for the poor, for racial minorities, for “The Other America.”
Famously, in February 1968, Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show” for a week., who uses his platform to illuminate black perspectives and highlight social injustice. His guests included King, who was about to launch his Poor People’s Campaign, and Kennedy, whom Belafonte urged to launch a presidential campaign.
Within months, both men were murdered.
For more than half a century, Belafonte continued the legacy of the 1960s, often taking over provocative views from the extreme left of the political spectrum. Like few others, he mixed the worlds of culture and politics and sang a song of justice.