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Harry Belafonte: A pivotal voice of Black America

It was 1968, a year fraught with turbulence at home and abroad. Early that year, Johnny Carson took the week off and turned the reins of “The Tonight Show” over to Harry Belafonte.


Legendary entertainer, civil rights icon dies at age 96

It was 1968, a year fraught with turbulence at home and abroad. Early that year, Johnny Carson took the week off and turned the reins of “The Tonight Show” over to Harry Belafonte. The popular entertainer and civil rights activist had no shortage of famous names to converse with that week in welcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, actor Sidney Poitier, actress/singer Lena Horne, pop star Dionne Warwick and comedians Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell.

“I was on the elevator the other day and the doorman said his name was Johnny Carson. It’s nice to see you,” Kennedy said. With that, the camera panned over to Belafonte sitting at the desk and both friends enjoyed a good laugh.

Belafonte, the beloved entertainer, civil rights activist and globe-trotting humanitarian, died this week at his New York home at age 96 following a battle with congestive heart failure.

Instrumental force in music

Belafonte managed to squeeze two lifetimes in his decades-long career, so much so that it can be hard to comprehend his odyssey. Belafonte broke barriers as one of the first Black leading men in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, his singing acumen helped to define him as the instrumental force in bringing the African and Calypso sound to the forefront of American music.

Belefonte earned the first gold record in history after selling more than 1 million LP’s for his 1956 album “Calypso” which remained on the Billboard Top Pop Album charts for 31 weeks. As prominent as he was as an entertainer, he was just as influential to the fight for civil rights for African-Americans. A close confidant of King–and a financial backer of many important social movements–Belafonte was a key organizer for the 1963 March on Washington in which he implored friends such as Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Mahalia Jackson, Josephine Baker and so many others to join him in a cause much larger than their individual public personas.

An unmatched talent

Belafonte was the star of films that challenged racist boundaries and dated stereotypes (e.g. “Bright Road”--1953, “Carmen Jones”--1954 both with Dorothy Dandridge), being blacklist during the “Red Scare,” and threatened with violence for his outspoken activism in Black civil rights. Long after, Belafonte would organize the famous “We Are The World” performance of music superstars in 1985 to provide famine relief in Africa.

Throughout the years, Belafonte would remain charming and self-deprecating to a fault, fond of observing that he was the world’s greatest actor "based on the fact I’ve convinced so many people I’m a singer." This is from a man with an Oscar, Grammy, Tony and Emmy awards; he was a performer who could easily turn his musical talent to blues, folk, jazz, pop, soul, gospel and, of course, calypso.

Born in Harlem on March 1, 1927, Harold George Belafonte Jr. was the son of mixed-race West Indian immigrants. His racial lineage was complex. "On both sides of my family, my aunts and uncles intermarried," he said. “If you could see my whole family congregated together, you would see every tonality of color, from the darkest Black, like my Uncle Hyne, to the ruddiest White, like my Uncle Eric - a Scotsman,” he said.

His mother Melvine was a housekeeper who worked long days and made him promise never to let injustice go unchallenged. "It stayed with me forever," he later recalled.

"Whenever I came upon opportunities that were not offered to us because of race, because of poverty, I always remembered her counsel. She faced a life of endless rejection. I just marveled at the way in which she seemed to endure."

As a boy, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Jamaica to escape the grinding hardship of the Great Depression. There, he attended a British-style boarding school while back home his parents quietly separated. Belafonte returned to the US in his early teens and joined the US Navy in World War II–although he never saw active service or left the American mainland.

Honing his craft

Belefonte, married to Margueritre Byrd, scraped a living as a maintenance man, and began hanging round the American Negro Theatre in his native New York. At first, they gave him work shifting scenes. Then they threw him bit parts. Eventually, he was playing the lead.

He was given a part in a mixed race company alongside two other aspiring actors–Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis. A play which included a song that caught the attention of local talent spotters and he was asked to do a set at a jazz club called the Royal Roost. Thinking he’d be the only performer, he did a double take as he walked on stage and spotted the house band: Charlie Parker was waiting with saxophone, and Miles Davis was dangling his trumpet. "I had to clear my throat about 90 times before I knew what key I was in," Belafonte recalled. He was hired on the spot, but eventually decided jazz didn’t suit him. "There was little room for lyrics or story," he said. "I had to think exclusively in terms of vocal gymnastics."

Soon he was picking up a Tony Award for his part in the musical revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” He also starred in the successful film musical “Carmen Jones” although his voice was inexplicably overdubbed by an opera singer.

Then came “Calypso.” The first track was “Banana Boat Song,” better known as “Day-O” in reference to its famous chorus. It is a traditional Jamaican folk tune–and thus not technically a calypso–sung from the point of view of dock workers loading fruit onto ships. "Daylight come and me wan’ go home" became his anthem.

A balancing act

A string of successful albums followed. His 1957 Christmas hit “Mary’s Boy Child” sold a million copies in Britain alone, and Frank Sinatra recruited him to play at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. A series of TV specials cemented his popular appeal and gave him the chance to introduce new acts to US audiences. They included a bright new star from Greece, Nana Mouskouri, and a shuffling harmonica player that Belafonte thought had talent–Bob Dylan.

As an actor, Belafonte turned down the lead in a film version of “Porgy and Bess” because he objected to what he considered to be the racial stereotyping of the role. In 1957, he did appear as an aspiring politician who threatens the White ruling class in “Island in the Sun,” a movie about interracial romance on a fictional Caribbean island.

The relationship between Belafonte’s character and the film’s leading lady, Joan Fontaine, was hugely controversial in pre-civil rights America. The film was a major success but Fontaine had to endure hate mail for her performance. Some of it was from the Ku Klux Klan.

Civil rights work

Off screen, Belafonte fell for another of his co-stars, Joan Collins. The resulting affair coincided with the end of his first marriage, but the relationship did not last. Soon after the film’s release, he married former dancer Julie Robinson.

The Motown Sound and the British Invasion of the mid-1960s suddenly made Belafonte’s music appear outdated and his record sales suffered. He became increasingly involved in the civil rights movement. During that period, Belafonte refused to play the American South, where segregation was in force. He became close to singer Paul Robeson, who opposed colonialism in Africa as well as racial segregation in the US. He supported the Freedom Riders, who traveled on buses in the Southern states challenging racial discrimination, and he idolized Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte stood bail for King when the latter was thrown in the Birmingham City jail in April 1963.

With his friend Sidney Poitier, he entertained crowds campaigning for civil rights and secured $60,000 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major civil rights organizations. When Petula Clark briefly touched Belafonte’s arm during a TV special, the sponsors tried to cut the segment.

"I’ve always accepted the fact that there’s a price to be paid for those who choose to step into the waters of social development, civil rights, fighting against racism," he later said. "I would rather have not been blacklisted, and perhaps made enough money to get me a private plane - but if in order to achieve that end I have to sell my soul, the answer is no."

In the mid-1980s, Belafonte was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund. In 1988, he hosted a concert at London’s Wembley Stadium to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Mandela later brought him to South Africa, where he lent his weight to a campaign to highlight the dangers of Aids. He married for a third and final time, to photographer Pamela Frank, in 2008.

Outspoken and unapologetic

At various times, he opposed the US embargo on Cuba and its invasion of Grenada. He attacked Black members of the Bush administration during the Iraq war, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, comparing them to “subservient slaves” in the home of a “White master.” Powell blandly dismissed his remarks as "unfortunate". An incandescent Rice went further, retorting that: "I don’t need Harry Belafonte to tell me what it means to be Black."

When the Oval Office gained its first Black president, Belafonte held him to the same standard as he did the others–condemning Barack Obama for failing to devote sufficient attention to the suffering of the poor. When Donald Trump was elected, he instantly became co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington. In 2014, Belafonte was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

In 2018, he made a dramatic cameo appearance in Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman” as an elderly witness recalling a horrific lynching that took place in his childhood. Belafonte could garner laughs as well in taking a turn as was quite a comedian as well in taking a turn Geechie Dan Beauford in the 1974 comedy “Uptown Saturday Night.”

Harry Belafonte will be remembered as a great entertainer who declined the temptation to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his good fortune. He campaigned as his mother had once directed: Turning his fire on political and social injustice wherever he found it.

"When I was born, I was coloured," he said. "I soon became a negro. Not long after that I was black. Most recently, I was African-American. It seems we are on a roll."

Belafonte and Marguerite Byrd had two children, Adrienne Bissemeyer and Shari Belafonte, who survive him, as do his two children by Julie Robinson, Gina and David Belafonte, along with a stepdaughter, Sarah Frank; a stepson, Lindsey Frank, and three step-grandchildren.

Funeral services for Harry Belafonte are pending.