Williams: Harry Belafonte’s bold and generous activism embodied the ‘artist as citizen’

Michael Paul Williams

Michael Paul Williams

Harry Belafonte was anathema to the current-day haters who want entertainers to “shut up and …” sing, dance or dribble.

Belafonte — in the model of his mentor, the great singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson — would not be muzzled, career considerations be damned.

“I think it’s important to see him as part of a lineage of African American entertainers who believed they had a role to speak out and actively support their people’s struggles for freedom,” said Kevin K. Gaines, Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia.

“He, in turn, inspired others.”

Belafonte At US Civil Rights Concert

Caribbean singer Harry Belafonte performs during an appearance at a benefit for the U.S. civil rights movement, in Paris’ Palais des Sports, March 29, 1966. (AP Photo/Spartaco Bodini)

Belafonte died Tuesday in New York at age 96, and those of us who believe in social justice courageously pursued should feel gutted.

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You may recall the Harlem-born artist opposite Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones,” a 1954 musical with an all-Black cast that included Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Or you may know him for his groundbreaking 1956 album “Calypso,” with its hit “Banana Boat” (Day-O). But some of us will be forever grateful not only for Belafonte’s vast skills as an entertainer, but his willingness to leverage his popularity and fame on behalf of humanity — be it the United States, apartheid-era South Africa or famine-plagued Ethiopia.

“He comes out of a unique moment in American politics and culture. And it’s a moment in which politics and culture were fused together,” Gaines said.

It was a mid-20th-century moment when outspoken entertainers such as Robeson believed in “the artist as citizen,” with “an obligation to put his art to the service of fighting for a more just society,” Gaines added.

Robeson, one of the most popular Black entertainers of his era, suffered the consequences, running afoul of the Cold War repression that was McCarthyism. But he’d influence others who’d follow in his wake at the dawn of the civil rights movement, including singer Eartha Kitt, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, actor Sidney Poitier and Belafonte.

These entertainers, in turn, would influence Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and future artists. And Belafonte leveraged support among white Hollywood entertainers such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster to attend the 1963 March on Washington, Gaines said.

Julian Maxwell Hayter, a University of Richmond historian, called Belafonte “a legend” and “one of the most deeply politicized entertainers,” especially during the civil rights movement.

Indeed, Belafonte helped finance the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration project in Mississippi led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC.


Harry Belafonte, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Coretta Scott King; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Ethel Kennedy, and Kenny Leon, from left, join hands on stage at the end of a tribute to civil rights pioneer John Lewis on his 65th birthday in Atlanta, in this Feb., 21, 2005, file photo. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)

Belafonte was doing all this “at a time when being public about civil rights came at great risk to one’s career development,” Hayter said. “He didn’t care. He had shown and demonstrated that he was more committed to the cause of civil rights than his own career development.”

Personally delivering monetary support to activists in the South’s heart of darkness threatened more than Belafonte’s career. Belafonte and Poitier, driving back roads at night to Greenwood, Mississippi, with a suitcase full of cash, faced real physical harm, Gaines said.

But Belafonte’s human rights efforts did not stop at the American border. He was the brainchild behind USA for Africa, the famine-relief project that rallied musicians to produce the benefit song “We Are the World.” He also organized a concert that was broadcast globally demanding Nelson Mandela’s release from imprisonment in South Africa.

“He was an internationalist,” Gaines said. “He believed that African Americans had an interest in forging solidarity with African peoples in support of freedom and liberation for all peoples of African descent.”

We might be tempted to view this history through rose-colored glasses, imagining that Belafonte performed these works to a soundtrack of cheers. But the criticism of the civil rights movement back then “would have sounded eerily similar to the criticism against Black Lives Matter now,” Hayter said. In truth, most white Americans felt no more sanguine about the “long hot summers” of the late 1960s than naysayers felt about the 2020 social justice protests. King was a pariah before his 1968 assassination.

“We have to recognize that the majority of Americans wanted nothing to do with that type of activism. And in fact, the people who partook of that activism did so at great risk,” Hayter said.

Obit Harry Belafonte

Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte speaks to a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington during a youth march for integration, Oct. 25, 1958. (AP Photo/Charles Gorry, File)

But the oppression of the era also lent itself to Black solidarity, with activists setting aside their differences as the times required. And — unlike today — the Harry Belafontes of the world could not be bought because they had very little corporate money behind them.

“They could take bigger risks for Black people,” Hayter said. “One, because the times necessitated those risks, and two, because they hadn’t hitched their wagons to white money yet.”

This was before “the sort of Gordon Gekko-ism of the 1980s,” said Hayter, referring to the fictional film protagonist in “Wall Street” who embodied the “greed is good” ethos that became pervasive. Corporate commitments have purchased Black silence. Belafonte, years ago, verbally sparred with Jay-Z over the social responsibilities of celebrities. Michael Jordan, one of Black America’s biggest stars, has become synonymous with the quote “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

These times should be teaching us both the tenuous nature of social justice wins, and the folly of keeping silent. Harry Belafonte, permanently seated on the right side of history, no longer walks among us. We desperately need folks to fill his shoes.

Michael Paul Williams (804) 649-6815

[email protected]

@RTDMPW on Twitter

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