Actor and activist Harry Belafonte has passed away at the age of 96

Actor and activist Harry Belafonte has passed away at the age of 96

NEW YORK — Harry Belafonte, a pioneering actor and singer who later became an activist, humanitarian, and the global conscience, has passed away. He was 96.

Publicist Ken Sunshine reported that Belafonte passed away of congestive heart failure on Tuesday at his New York home with his wife Pamela by his side.

Belafonte was one of the first Black artists to win over an audience in movies and sell a million albums as a singer; many people still recognize him from his hallmark hit, "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," with its call of "Day-O! Daaaaay-O," but his true reputation was cemented once he stepped away from the spotlight in the 1960s and proved the maxim of his hero Paul Robeson that artists are "gatekeepers of truth" to be true.

When thinking of a celebrity activist, Belafonte is the prototypical and definitive example. Few were able to match his dedication, and none could match his status as a bridge connecting Hollywood, Washington, and the civil rights movement.

Not only did Belafonte take part in demonstrations and charity performances, but he also helped plan and fund them. He helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in many ways, including connecting him with politicians and celebrities and providing him with financial support. He took huge risks for the Black celebrity community, condemning Jay-Z and Beyoncé for not fulfilling their "social responsibilities," and serving as a mentor to Usher, Common, Danny Glover, and many more. He played the role of an elder statesman teaching a group of young activists about American history in Spike Lee's film "BlacKkKlansman," released in 2018.

Friends like civil rights activist Andrew Young would often remark that Belafonte was one of the rare people who become even more radical as they got older. He was actively involved in everything he did and was unrelenting in his pursuit of justice, whether it be against Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the Koch brothers, or even the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama, whom Belafonte once begged to allow him "some slack."

What makes you believe that isn't what I've been doing?" Belafonte asked.”

Since the 1950s, Belafonte has been a respected musician. In 1954, he became the first Black artist to win an Academy Award for his appearance in the TV special "Tonight with Harry Belafonte," and five years later, he received a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson's "Almanac."

In 1954, he co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in "Carmen Jones," an all-Black cast musical directed by Otto Preminger that became a critical and commercial success. Because of the interracial relationship depicted in the 1957 film "Island in the Sun" starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, the picture was banned in numerous Southern cities and theater owners were intimidated by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1955, Belafonte produced "Calypso," which quickly became the first certified million-selling album by a solo musician and sparked a national obsession with Caribbean rhythms (earning him the unflattering moniker "King of Calypso"). A teenage Bob Dylan, a Belafonte fan, made his recording debut in the early '60s by playing harmonica on Belafonte's "Midnight Special."

"Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it," Dylan would later write. When you meet someone like Harry, you can only hope that some of their awesomeness would rub off on you.

After a phone call from the young civil rights leader in the spring of 1956, Belafonte became fast friends with Martin Luther King Jr. They talked for hours, and Belafonte later said that he felt King had elevated him to a "higher plane of social protest." Belafonte, at the height of his fame, subsequently organized a benefit concert for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which brought national attention to King. In the early 1960s, he made a conscious decision to focus on civil rights issues.

In his autobiography "My Song," published in 2011, Belafonte recalled, "I was having almost daily talks with Martin." After some thought, "I realized that the movement was more important than anything else."

When asked for his thoughts, he freely gave them to the Kennedys and other early political figures. During the 1960 election, when Black people were just as likely to support Republicans as they were Democrats, John F. Kennedy visited Belafonte at his Manhattan home to try to win his support. Belafonte articulated King’s significance and facilitated a meeting between King and Kennedy.

"I was quite taken by the fact that he (Kennedy) knew so little about the Black community," Belafonte said of Kennedy to NBC in 2013. To paraphrase, "He knew the headlines of the day, but he wasn't really anywhere nuanced or detailed on the depth of Black anguish or what our struggle's really about."

Belafonte frequently criticized the Kennedys for not standing up to the Southern segregationists who made up a large portion of the Democratic Party at the time. Over the government's inability to safeguard the "Freedom Riders" trying to integrate bus terminals, he had an argument with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother. At a highly publicized meeting with the attorney general, he was present alongside other Black activists, including the writer Lorraine Hansberry, who shocked President Kennedy by asking if the United States deserved Black allegiance at all.

Bobby's face flushed at the thought. It was the first time I'd ever seen him so rattled, Belafonte subsequently recalled.

Belafonte participated extensively in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. To reach the widest possible audience, he paired the more conservative Charlton Heston with the more liberal Marlon Brando to lead the Hollywood delegation. He also enlisted his close friend Sidney Poitier. After three "Freedom Summer" volunteers were killed in 1964, he and Poitier drove to Mississippi to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to activists there. They were pursued by the KKK at one point. The next year, he arranged for musicians like Tony Bennett and Joan Baez to perform at the Selma marches.

Belafonte sat next to Coretta at the funeral and continued to support the King family after his death in 1968, in part through an insurance policy he had taken out on King during his live.

"Much of my political outlook was already in place when I encountered Dr. King," Belafonte wrote later. I had already come a long way and was completely dedicated to the civil rights movement. I had high hopes for him, and he exceeded them.

Belafonte was cut off from the civil rights movement after King's death. He didn't get along well with King's handpicked successor, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and he was turned off by the separatist ideals of Stokely Carmichael and other "Black Power" activists. The entertainer's activism, however, was not limited to the United States.

He arranged for Nelson Mandela to come to the United States for the first time after his release from jail in 1990 and he also helped promote South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba to American audiences. In 1964, the two won a Grammy for their performance record "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba." He had started the million-selling "We Are the World" recording a few years previously, which won a Grammy for its contribution to famine relief in Africa.

Poitier, who passed away in 2022, and Belafonte's early lives and careers were remarkably similar. Both grew up in New York after spending time in the Caribbean. They both joined the military during WWII, performed in the American Negro Theatre, and eventually made it big in Hollywood. While they both believed in civil rights, their divergent priorities led to animosity between them. However, although Poitier enjoyed a long and successful run as a leading man and box office hit in the 1960s, Belafonte became tired of performing and began declining roles he thought were "neutered."

"There was an air of calm, angelic majesty about Sidney. It's not me," Belafonte declared in his autobiography. Like you, I didn't want to water down my sexuality. Sidney did that with every character he played.

A human being, Belafonte was. He admitted to having extramarital affairs, being a bad parent, and having a terrifying anger because of his deep-seated insecurities. "Curse the agent who botches a booking, or the musician who flubs his cue," he said candidly.

He wrote that Poitier's decision to play Mandela in one TV miniseries that Belafonte had developed and then accept to play Mandela in another production was a "radical breach" of their agreement. Because of the distance he had built up with King's family, he was not even asked to give a eulogy at her funeral. Later, he filed a lawsuit against three of King's children, alleging that they were too busy "selling trinkets and memorabilia" to properly care for their father's papers.

Years before, he made headlines when he compared Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state, to a slave who was "permitted to come into the house of the master" because of his service in the George W. Bush administration. At Obama's inauguration in January 2009, he officiated a banquet called the Inaugural Peace Ball alongside Baez and other notable figures. After Obama's election, Belafonte criticized him for not fulfilling his campaign pledge and for lacking "fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or Black."

During the Kennedy administration, Belafonte served as cultural consultant for the Peace Corps, and years later, he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the Grammy for lifetime achievement, and a number of other accolades for his work in film and music. His proudest acting moment came in 1996, when he was honored with a New York Film Critics Award for his performance as a gangster in Robert Altman's "Kansas City."

In his autobiography, he said, "I'm as proud of that film critics' award as I am of all my gold records."

He has four kids from his three marriages, the last of which was to photographer Pamela Frank. Shari, David, and Gina are the three who went on to pursue acting. Two stepchildren and eight grandchildren complete his family.

In 1927, in Harlem, Harry Belafonte was born as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. His mother was of Dutch and Jamaican descent and worked as a housekeeper; his father was a fisherman and chef. Belafonte's parents were immigrants who lacked proper documentation, and he recalled that they had "an underground life, as criminals of a sort, on the run."

Belafonte's father was abusive, and he and his mother were forced to send their son to live with relatives in Jamaica for several years. Belafonte eventually concluded that his poor reading skills were the result of dyslexia and led him to abandon his high school education before enlisting in the Navy. He credits the beginning of his political education to reading "Color and Democracy" by the Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois while he was in the army.

After the war, he settled into a position as an assistant janitor in New York City. One of the residents was so fond of him that they gave him two complimentary tickets to the American Negro Theatre, a community theater for African-American actors. Belafonte was so enamored that he first volunteered, and then formally joined, as an actor. Similarly "skinny, brooding and vulnerable within our hard shells of self-protection," as Belafonte described himself and Poitier, Poitier was a peer.

While attending acting school at the New School for Social Research, Belafonte crossed paths with future Hollywood greats such as Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, and others. Brando was a role model for Belafonte, and the two became close; they went on double dates and played congas at parties together. Friendships with prominent figures in politics and the arts, such as Frank Sinatra, Lester Young, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fidel Castro, developed during the course of Belafonte's lifetime.

Belafonte's early acting credits include "Days of Our Youth" and Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Peacock," the latter of which the actor, singer, and campaigner Robeson remembers more for being a backstage visitor than for Belafonte's own performance.

Belafonte recalled Robeson's "love he radiated" and "the profound responsibility he felt, as an actor, to use his platform as a bully pulpit" as the things he remembered most about the actor. The authorities began to investigate him after he became friends with Robeson and advocated for left-wing causes. Leftists believed, and Belafonte strongly denied, that he had provided names of suspected Communists in order to play on "The Ed Sullivan Show." FBI investigators had visited his home, and he nearly lost his appearance there due to allegations of Communism.

In the 1950s, Belafonte began his singing career, performing at the Blue Note, the Vanguard, and other clubs (he was even accompanied by Charlie Parker and Max Roach at one performance) and absorbing the folk, blues, jazz, and calypso he had heard while living in Jamaica. Beginning in 1954, he launched a string of albums that would go on to become top ten hits, including "Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites" and "Belafonte," and singles like "Mathilda," "Jamaica Farewell," and "The Banana Boat Song," a revised Caribbean ballad that was added to his "Calypso" record.

"We found ourselves one or two songs short, so we threw in 'Day-O' as filler," Belafonte recalled in his autobiography.

He was a famous figure, yet he was often accused of stealing classic content without giving credit or sharing the benefits. After giving televised performances against banana boat backdrops, Belafonte expressed sorrow and fretted about being typecast as a calypso singer, so he avoided performing "Day-O" live for years.

Belafonte was unusual among young artists in that he considered the industry's financial implications. He established one of the first record labels run entirely by people of African descent. In 1969, he produced the Off-Broadway play "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," and since then he has produced a number of films and television productions. He broke new ground by being the first Black TV producer.

In 1968, Belafonte made headlines when he took over "Tonight" for a week when Johnny Carson was unwell. An unplanned act of kindness later that year marked yet another turning point. On a TV program they had shot together, Belafonte sang harmony with British singer Petula Clark on the anti-war anthem "On the Path of Glory." Clark even put her hand on Belafonte's arm. Sponsor Chrysler wanted a redo of the scene. Clark and Belafonte successfully resisted, making history as the first people on television to show a white woman touching the arm of a Black man.

His return to film acting in the 1970s included the commercial failure "Buck and the Preacher" and the raucous and successful comedy "Uptown Saturday Night," both of which he co-starred in with Poitier. Other films in which he appeared include "Bobby," "White Man's Burden," cameos in Robert Altman's "The Player" and "Ready to Wear," and the Altman-directed TV series "Tanner on Tanner."

Belafonte, who never forgot his humble beginnings, always saw himself not as a musician who became an activist, but as an activist who happened to be a musician.

"When you grow up, son," Belafonte recalled his mother urging him, "never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn't do it."

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