The world is grieving because truth, justice, and equality lost another brother when Harry Belafonte, a beloved entertainer and outspoken activist—who used his voice and platform to champion the disenfranchised, who was in the thick of the civil rights movement marching next to his friend and ally, Martin Luther King Jr.—died on April 25, 2023 at the age of 96. There was no one like Harry Belafonte, who went from Harlem to Hollywood to World Humanitarian.
Segregation in Las Vegas
I had the pleasure of seeing Harry Belafonte perform for a week in 1979 in the Circus Maximus Showroom at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where I worked as a camera girl—yes, I had to wear a Roman toga outfit. I was in my twenties at the time, too young to know how iconic Belafonte was. But as I got older, I understood and appreciated how seamlessly he merged social justice with his work in film and music. Being a humanitarian who fought to break down barriers for Black people was as natural and vital to Harry Belafonte as breathing.
By the time I moved from New York to Las Vegas in the late 70s, The Entertainment Capitol of the World was no longer segregated. But back in the 1930s, Las Vegas was known as a racist town — “The Mississippi of the West.”
In the 1950s, the names of Black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Louie Armstrong, and Harry Belafonte lit up the marquees of The Riviera, The Sands, and other gaming establishments on the Las Vegas Strip. Although they were allowed to perform in the showrooms and lounges, they weren’t allowed to stay, gamble, or dine in these venues.
Instead, they were ushered out the back door after their shows and typically stayed at the Harrison Boarding House at 1001 F Street on the “Historic Westside” of Las Vegas, which has been preserved as a landmark.
In 1957, Belafonte married actress Julie Robinson. The two met in 1954 on the set of Carmen Jones, while Belafonte was still married to Marguerite Byrd, who he wed in 1948, and was the mother of his two daughters—activist Adrienne and actor Shari. At the time Robinson was dating Belafonte’s friend, Marlon Brando.
The couple got married in Las Vegas with Sidney Poitier acting as Belafonte’s best man. Harry and Julie had a son, music producer David, and a daughter, actress Gina, and were married for forty-seven years before they divorced in 2004.
A year later in 1958, racial tensions were so high that Belafonte’s friend, Sammy Davis Jr., was threatened by organized crime figures close to Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, because he was dating the beautiful white actress, Kim Novak. After being kidnapped for a few hours and threatened with bodily harm if he didn’t marry a Black woman within two days. Davis married Loray White, in order to protect himself against mob violence. Belafonte attended his friend’s brief marriage. (Davis married two more times).
Emboldened by the wave of racial activism sweeping the nation, the local NAACP threatened a protest march on the Las Vegas Strip on March 25, 1960 unless segregation ended. Fearing the negative publicity, the casino owners quickly agreed that their properties would be open not only to Black entertainers, but Black guests.
These and other racial experiences solidified Harry Belafonte’s lifelong role as an activist.
Born Into Poverty
Belafonte was born in Harlem on March 1, 1927 to immigrant parents from Jamaica. His mother, Melvine, had a white Scottish mother and a Black Jamaican father; and his father, Harry Belafonte Sr. had a Black American mother, and a Dutch-Jewish father (though Belafonte was raised Catholic.)
Belafonte said poverty was his mother’s midwife. “She had her children in poverty, but she taught us to be valiant in the face of oppression.”
She would tell me, ‘Never go to bed at night knowing there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.’”– Harry Belafonte
The Early Years
After his parents split up, Melvine took her two sons to Kingston, Jamaica, and left them with their grandmother for eight years until Belafonte was thirteen. Belafonte said he felt abandoned by his mother. Yet it was on the island of Jamaica that he developed a love for calypso music, which would later become his trademark.
In this 2012 video, Harry Belafonte talks about his difficult relationship with his mother, his gay uncle, his gangster uncle, homophobia, and being diagnosed with cancer at 70.
At 17, he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy during WWII. When he came back to the States, he got a job as a janitor’s assistant. His life took an unexpected turn when a tenant gave him two tickets to see the American Negro Theater. Belafonte fell in love with the art form.
The first time he sang professionally in 1949, he was backed by the Charlie Parker band, which included Miles Davis. His music career as a club singer in New York paid for acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City, where he met Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, and Marlon Brando.
Belafonte and Poitier, who became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role in Lilies of the Field in 1963, developed a close friendship. Like Belafonte, who had spent much of his boyhood in Jamaica, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas.
In those early days in New York, both men were struggling financially, so they would purchase one ticket to different local plays, trade places in between acts, and afterwards fill each other in about what happened.
When Sidney Poitier died on January 6, 2022, Harry Belafonte said, ‘”For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could. He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”
Belafonte’s Duel Careers – Acting and Music
In December 1953, Belafonte opened on Broadway in the musical, Almanac opposite Hermione Gingold, Polly Bergen, Orson Bean, and Tina Louise (Gilligan’s Island). Reviewers said Harry Belafonte’s storytelling style as a singer and actor made his Mark Twain performance, the high point in the play’s theatrical artistry. Though new to the stage, Belafonte won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in Almanac.
In 1954, Belafonte got his first Hollywood break in the all-black musical film Carmen Jones with Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl Bailey.
The Otto Preminger directed film was nominated for two Oscars and the Library of Congress selected it to be preserved in the National Film Preservation Board for its cultural and historical significance.
In this video, Harry Belafonte discusses discrimination in Hollywood during his days on the big screen, and more recently in 2012 when the George Lucas film Red Tails, starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. came out about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) servicemen who served during World War II.
Calypso – Record Breaking Album
In 1956, Belafonte created the calypso craze when he became the first solo artist to sell a million copies worldwide in a single year with his album, Calypso, which was inspired by the music from his childhood that originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 19th century. The album included “Day-O,” otherwise known as “The Banana Boat Song.”
The song took on a life of its own and became a cultural phenomenon. The Muppets sang it on their show. And in 1986 or early 1987, David Geffen called Belafonte to find out if he could use “Day-O” in a dark comedy about two ghosts who hire a crass “freelance bio-exorcist” to rid their home of insufferable art snobs. The film sounded preposterous, yet Belafonte was intrigued and flattered. That’s how “Day-O” ended up in a hilarious scene in Beetlejuice.
Controversial Film – Island in the Sun
In 1957, Belafonte starred in the film Island in the Sun with Joan Fontaine, who played an elite white woman drawn to the magnetism of Belafonte, who played an ambitious Black union leader, who was becoming a powerful politician.
The film was about an interracial romance between Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, and even though the characters didn’t kiss, Fontaine received hate mail, including some purported threats from the Ku Klux Klan, which she gave to the FBI.
Theaters in the South banned the film because of its interracial theme. In other places, there were protests prior to the film’s opening, and some places refused to show it saying it was “too frank a depiction of miscegenation and offensive to moral standards, and no good for whites or Negros.” Zanuck said he would pay the fines of any theater owners who were charged for showing the film.
When Island in the Sun premiered in June 1957, it was a major box office success, opening at number one in the country.
The acronym EGOT stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. It is the designation given to people who have won all four of the major American art awards for outstanding achievements in television, recording, film, and Broadway theater. The EGOT has been referred to as the “grand slam” of show business.
In 1954, Harry Belafonte won a Tony for Almanac; in 1960, he became the first Black man to win an Emmy for his TV special Tonight with Harry Belafonte; in 1961, he won his first of three Grammys; and in 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar.
As of 2023, only 18 people have a competitive EGOT, and Harry Belafonte joined four others—Barbra Streisand, Lisa Minneli, James Earl Jones and Quincy Jones—who have a noncompetitive EGOT that includes an honorary or special award.
It was the late, great actor Paul Robeson, who inspired Belafonte with the belief that “Artists should be the gatekeepers of the truth, civilization’s radical voice.”
Robeson told Belafonte, “Get everyone to sing ‘Day-O’ and they will want to know who you are.”
As Belafonte later said, “Paul Robeson was my first great formative influence. You might say he gave me my backbone. Martin Luther King Jr. was the second. He nourished my soul.”
In 1953, Belafonte, who was 26, met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was 24. Those two powerful, eloquent, passionate, courageous men, who remained life long friends and allies, remind me of the two Tennessee House of Representatives—Justin Jones and Justin Pearson—who were expelled by Republicans in the State Capitol, for speaking out about gun violence. I am sure Mr. Belafonte was proud of those young men.
He himself refused to perform in the South from 1954 to 1961, which opened him up to being blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era and a subject of attacks by racists. But that did not stop him.
He contributed to the 1961 Freedom Rides, and supported voter registration. During the 1963 Birmingham campaign, Belafonte bailed Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. out of the Birmingham, Alabama jail and raised $50,000 to release other civil rights protesters as well.
Belafonte spoke at rallies and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and brought some of his Hollywood friends like Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and singer Tony Bennett to march with him.
Belafonte didn’t just march for equality in the United States. He also marched against apartheid in South Africa. Here he is with President Nelson Mandela and his longtime friend, actor, Danny Glover, who regarded Belafonte as a mentor.
“We Are The World”
Just before Christmas in 1984, Harry Belafonte had the idea to record a song with all the generation’s best-known music artists, and donate the proceeds of the song to a new organization called United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa). The non-profit foundation would then provide food and relief aid to starving people in Africa, specifically Ethiopia, where a 1983–1985 famine raged. The famine ultimately killed about one million people. Belafonte also planned to set aside money to help eliminate hunger in the U.S.
He contacted entertainment manager and fellow fundraiser Ken Kragen, who asked his clients Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers to participate. Kragen and the two musicians agreed to help Belafonte, and in turn, enlisted the cooperation of Stevie Wonder, to add more “name value” to their project. Quincy Jones was drafted to co-produce the song, taking time out from his work on the film The Color Purple. Jones telephoned Michael Jackson, who had released Thriller in 1982.
Forty-six vocalists participated in the “We Are The World” recording. The video ultimately brought in $50 million in donations.
As Jane Fonda narrates in this next video, the recording of “We Are The World” took about four hours. Everyone was exhausted when it was done, but this behind the scenes video shows the artists all paying tribute to the man who came up with the idea, Harry Belafonte, by singing “Day-O.”
In 1985 and 1986, “We Are The World” won two MTV Video Music Awards, four Grammys, a Peoples’ Choice Awards, and an American Music Award.
Relevant Until The End
Throughout his career, Belafonte was an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement and USA for Africa. From 1987 until his death, he was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Belafonte acted as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented Harry Belafonte with the National Medal of Arts.
In 2013, at the 44th NAACP Image Awards, Belafonte was awarded the Spingarn Medal, the gold medal awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1915 (the year Rosa Parks was honored) to the man or woman of African descent and American citizenship who made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field
After a touching speech from Sidney Poitier, Belafonte spoke about gun reform, emphasizing that the group most devastated by America’s obsession with guns is African Americans, who are largely absent from the conversation.
“America has the largest prison population in the world, and of the over 2 million men, women, and children who make up the incarcerated, the overwhelming majority is Black. They are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice, and in the gun game, they are the most hunted.
“A river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our Black children,” Belafonte said. “Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of guns, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership, while no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.
“The question is: Where is the raised voice of Black America? Why are we mute? Where are our leaders, our legislators? Where is the church?
“Never in the history of Black America has there ever been such a harvest of truly gifted and powerful artists, as we witness today. Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. Let us not sit back silently…”
Jamie Foxx, who was also honored that year as the NAACP’s Entertainer of the Year, spoke about how inspired he was by Belafonte’s speech.
“I was thinking about all the stuff I was going to say personally about myself. It was going to be all about me, and how I did it, and how me and me and I, and I. And then you watch Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier come out, and you say to yourself, it’s really not that big of a deal what you’re doing just yet.
“I had so many things I wanted to say, but after watching and listening to Harry Belafonte speak, I feel like I failed a little bit in being caught up in what I do,” Foxx continued. “Maybe that’s the young generation, but I guarantee you, I’m going to work a whole lot harder, man.”
Belafonte criticized the George W. Bush administration, who let the Assault Weapon Ban lapse. And in this 2016 video with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, Belafonte talks about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, and much more.
The Next Generation of Activists
Elder Statesmen and men of good conscience like Belafonte and Poitier continued to be powerful, inspirational examples to younger generations of Black men like Jay Z, Usher, and Wyclef-Jean.
The fight for equality goes on. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but there is younger generation who has had to pick up the mantle and follow in the footsteps of leaders like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and the late U.S. House of Representative from Georgia, John Lewis.
“Good Trouble is necessary trouble. Young people can and should push for transformative change and hold us accountable to it. Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” said Lewis. “We have to be willing to speak up about injustice, always, no matter the costs.”U.S. Representative John Lewis