Harry Belafonte (1927–2023): A life of fighting racism and oppression

April 30, 2023
Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte addressing the 1963 March on Washington (top left), with Martin Luther King jnr (top right), protesting South African Apartheid (bottom left) and with Fidel Castro (bottom right). Photos: Wikimedia commons

The remarkable and outstanding Harry Belafonte died on April 25 in his New York City home at the age of 96. He lived a full life as a political activist for civil and human rights, and was known by millions as a popular singer, actor and entertainer.

In the 1950s, no one, Black or white, was more renowned and had as great an impact as Harry Belafonte. He set the path for other African Americans in the acting and film industry, using his fame and funds to support the struggle for civil rights and racial justice.

Belafonte always saw his first profession as that of an activist. His various jobs and fame were tools to advance the broader fight for equality and freedom here in the US and for oppressed peoples around the world.

"I think that I would rather pursue my beliefs and stand by them than have a successful career, if I must make the choice," Belafonte told Canada’s CBC in its 1961 special, Close-up on Belafonte.

Segregation shaped him

At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic.

Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants, he almost single-handedly ignited a craze for West Indian music with hit records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell”. His album Calypso, which included both those songs, reached the top of the Billboard album chart shortly after its release in 1956 and stayed there for 31 weeks. It was said to be the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies

The lifelong civil and human rights activist inspired millions here and around the world to stand up to racism, national oppression and for the working classes of all peoples. He challenged us all to understand fundamental change is only possible by what we do on the street.

Friend of King

Martin Luther King jnr and Belafonte met at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in 1956.

Belafonte provided bail money to get King and other civil rights activists out of jail. He helped organise the March on Washington in 1963, participating with close friend, actor Sydney Poitier.

His apartment in Manhattan became King’s home away from home. And he quietly maintained an insurance policy on King’s life, with the King family as the beneficiary, and donated his own money to make sure that the family was taken care of after King was assassinated in 1968.

Belafonte told Democracy Now! (a show he respected and which paid tribute to him on April 26) that he spoke to King almost daily.

Sharp critic of US foreign policy

Belafonte was a longtime critic of US foreign policy. He called for an end to the embargo against Cuba, supported the anti-apartheid movement and opposed policies of war and global oppression.

He spoke out against the US invasion of Iraq and once called President George W Bush the “greatest terrorist in the world”.

In the 1980s, Belafonte helped organise a cultural boycott of South Africa as well as the Live Aid concert and the all-star recording “We Are the World” to raise money to fight famine in Africa.

In 2011, Belafonte was the subject of the documentary, Sing Your Song, and published his autobiography, My Song. In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in recognition of his lifelong fight for civil rights and other causes.

“About my own life, I have no complaints,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”

A call to the young

New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a tribute to Belafonte on April 25, following his death, entitled “The Harry Belafonte speech that changed my life”.

I found it insightful.

Blow had heard Belafonte speak in 2013 at a Ford Foundation event in Manhattan to mark the 50th anniversary of the US civil rights movement.

“Belafonte, who was 86 at the time, did not disappoint. His words that day would change my life. Dressed in a natty cream suit, he was so eloquent and erudite — even poetic at times — that I craned my neck to see if he was reading from a prepared text. But there were no notes that I could see; we were witnessing the brilliance of Belafonte in real time. His words burned with a fire that spared none.

“Sitting in the dining room of the Ford Foundation — one of the largest foundations in the world, a citadel of philanthropy — Belafonte said, ‘I think that philanthropy is a big part of the problem’ because it fails to fund the real change makers.”

Belafonte hadn’t been sure that he would go to the event that day, wrote Blow, “because he was tired of begging philanthropies for money, only to have them send back proposals to be adjusted for new criteria, the people in boardrooms ‘telling the street how to shape language so we can appeal to you for your meager generosity’.

In his speech, Belafonte “condemned Black leaders who he believed had been seduced and silenced by the allure of self-import, saying, ‘The more they threw money at our leaders, the more they gave them electoral power, the more they gave them Black caucuses and progressive caucuses and they could sit in these tiny rooms and dance to their own melody, they completely lost sight of what was going on down below in the communities.’"

Belafonte told the audience: “We’ve become a shadow of need rather than a vision of power,” wrote Blow.

“He explained that at that stage in his life, he spent most of his time ‘encouraging young people to be more rebellious, to be more angry, to be more aggressive in making those who are comfortable with our oppression uncomfortable’.”

Harry Belafonte lived a profound life and will always be remembered as an activist first and foremost.

Harry Belafonte presente!

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