Harry Belafonte — A Life of Fighting Racism and Oppression

Malik Miah

A Hollywood photo of the young Harry Belafonte.

“Young people need to be more rebellious….” –Harry Belafonte

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 creative entertainer.

In the 1950s no one, Black or white, was more known and with greater impact that Harry Belafonte. He set the path for other African Americans in the acting and film industry who used his fame and funds to support civil rights and the struggle for racial justice.

Belafonte aways saw his first profession as an activist. His various jobs and fame were seen as tools to advance the broader fight for equality and freedom here in the United States 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 the CBC of Canada on 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 level.

Friend of King

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

Belafonte provided money to bail to King and other civil rights activists out of jail. His spacious apartment in Manhattan became King’s home away from home.

He quietly maintained an insurance policy on Dr. 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 Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

He helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963, where he and his close friend Sydney Poitier participated.

Belafonte told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” (a show he respected) that he spoke to King almost daily. (See the shows tribute of April 26 where links to previous interviews are available.)

Sharp Critic of U.S. Foreign Policy

Belafonte was a longtime critic of U.S. 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 U.S. invasion of Iraq and once called George W. Bush the “greatest terrorist in the world.”

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

In 2011, he was the subject of a documentary film, “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

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

I found the column insightful.

“In the summer of 2013, Blow writes, I participated in a daylong series of talks at the Ford Foundation in Midtown Manhattan. The event, ”The Road Ahead for Civil Rights: Courting Change,” was meant to mark the semicentennial of the 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.’ As he put it, he hadn’t been sure that he would go to the event that day 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.’

“He 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.’

”As Belafonte said, ‘We’ve become a shadow of need rather than a vision of power.’

“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 he said, as an activist first and foremost.

Harry Belafonte presente!

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