Harry Belafonte’s support of the Dream Defenders, the bold student activists who have camped outside Governor Rick Scott’s office in Tallahassee for the past two weeks to force a review of Stand Your Ground, has made headlines.
But Belafonte’s involvement with youth, especially those who want to pick up the torch and continue civil rights activism in the 21st century, is not new.
During the commemoration of the 40th year after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis in 2008, Belafonte hosted The Gathering for Justice, which convened youth leaders from various parts of the country at HBCU LeMoyne-Owen to share the tools for civil rights activism. That effort just received local coverage. Belafonte, however, has never been a man led by headlines, even though his presence throughout his career has generated many.
Outspoken since the beginning
Mentored by Paul Robeson, who used his talents and celebrity to fight Jim Crow and worldwide injustice, Belafonte has been outspoken since the beginning of his career, inside and outside the spotlight. From 1954 until 1961, he refused to perform in the South. He was an early and vocal supporter of John F. Kennedy, when it was not popular to be so.
Recalling his initial conversation with Dr. King in the early 1950s to The Guardian in 2007, Belafonte said, “We talked for four hours — it was a life-changing moment. From then on, I was in his service and in his world of planning, strategy and thinking. We became very close immediately.”
Thanks to his star power, Belafonte’s support and role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s was huge. But the Harlem-born son of Caribbean immigrants actually stumbled into stardom. As a high school dropout who served in the Navy during World War II, Belafonte, born in 1927, had no idea the world of entertainment was open to him. Theater tickets he received as a tip for working as a janitor’s assistant changed his perspective and led him to take acting classes. He studied with the late, great legends Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau. And when he joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem, he met both Robeson and lifelong friend Sidney Poitier.
His career took off. He won a Tony Award for Almanac in 1954, the same year he starred in Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge. As a recording artist, he hit big with Calypso in 1956, which produced his most well-known hit, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and sold millions of copies.
A target of conservatives, a hero to liberals
Because Belafonte used his stardom for issues way larger than himself, he was a target of the infamous conservative senator Joseph McCarthy. That did not curtail his activities. In December 1956, he appeared alongside Coretta Scott King and Duke Ellington at the New York fundraiser “Salute to Montgomery.” He raised funds, as well as gave his own, in support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth met in his New York apartment to strategize the Birmingham Campaign.
As King sat in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Belafonte raised $50,000 to continue the campaign. He also committed critical funds and support to the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives, as well as contributed greatly to the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom beyond just money. Belafonte even personally helped support the King family itself.
Missing few opportunities to raise larger awareness, Belafonte didn’t just neatly separate his career from his civil rights activities either.
When Belafonte sat in for Johnny Carson at The Tonight Show in February 1968, his guests included Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. When King was assassinated roughly two months later, Belafonte arranged for Bobby Kennedy’s private plane to fly Coretta Scott King to Memphis. During his appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Belafonte sang “Lord, Don’t Stop the Carnival” against a backdrop of the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention, which CBS refused to air.
His outreach broadened beyond the U.S. as well. In 1960, President Kennedy appointed him cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, a position in which he served for five years. He even contributed greatly to the “We Are the World” efforts. In 1987, he became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and was honored for ten years of service in 1997. And when it was not popular to do so, he spoke out against war in Iraq in 2006, even controversially labeling Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”
No denying his heart
Seeing 5-year-old J’aiesha Scott taken away from a Florida school in handcuffs on television in 2005, on the heels of a similar arrest of 6-year-old Salecia Johnson in Milledgeville, Alabama, outraged Belafonte. Speaking of Scott to The Guardian, Belafonte said, “Her only crime was that she was unruly in class. She did nothing threatening, she stabbed no one, there was no violence. There was a time you brought in a counselor [sic] or a social worker, but now you incarcerate them and take their fingerprints. It so shamed me that I called a meeting of the old civil rights leaders and many younger activists to discuss the plight of children and the justice system.” This sparked his involvement in The Gathering that has now extended more publicly to the Dream Defenders.
Right now, Harry Belafonte may be in the news for criticizing Jay Z and others for not taking the public stances against injustice he deems necessary to bring about the change needed in the 21st century, but his actions over a lifetime make him no armchair critic.
Many may argue about his way of offering that criticism and even his lack of knowledge of what Jay Z and others have actually done to bring attention among their peers to lingering injustice in the U.S., as well as social causes mainly in Africa, but there is no denying his heart and his commitment.
After all, if anyone knows if Jay Z’s quote “my presence is charity” has any truth to it, it is Harry Belafonte who has been present, as well as given his resources, personal and financial, without reservation, for decades.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.