Music Legend and Civil Rights Activist Harry Belafonte Dead at 96
Music, acting and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96, according to a spokesperson for his family. Belafonte was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr, a staunch advocate, and a trailblazer.
Singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte has died at the age of 96, according to a spokesperson.
Belafonte was born to Jamaican immigrants in Manhattan on March 1, 1927. His birth name was Harold George Bellanfanti Jr, but his mom – who was not authorized to live in the US – later changed the family name to Belafonte to avoid the immigration authorities. He spent most of his formative years in Jamaica, but returned to Manhattan for high school. Belafonte dropped out of high school at 17 to join the US Navy for World War II, and he has said that the racism he came across while in the military left a lasting impression.
In 2011, Belafonte released a memoir wherein he explained his reasoning for not re-inlisting; “I’d had enough of military service: not just the numbing routine and the moral risks with munitions but the all-to-frequent incidents of prejudice that kept me in an almost constant state of simmering rage.”
Belafonte worked as a janitor after the left the military, until he discovered a love for acting when a tenant in the building where he worked gave him a ticket to the American Negro Theater in Harlem. Belafonte started volunteering there before landing his first role. While there, he also met his friend and Caribbean-American superstar, Sidney Poitier, who eventually went on to win an Oscar.
Breaking News: Harry Belafonte, the barrier-breaking singer, actor and activist who became a major force in the civil rights movement, has died at 96. https://t.co/LTpfanpUDq pic.twitter.com/7aUl89rLzA
— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 25, 2023
Belafonte rose to fame in the 1950’s in film and musical theater roles that were instrumental in paving the way for Black Americans in the world of entertainment. His acclaimed roles even saw his films green-lit in a Jim Crow South, with one official on the censor board saying, “I never saw a better tragedian than” Belafonte.
But Belafonte, aka the King of Calypso, saw his name rocket to stardom when he recorded now-iconic renditions of Caribbean folk and calypso songs, including “Day-O (Banana Boat Song).”
In the ’50’s, Belafonte became close friends with Martin Luther King Jr., became the first Black television producer, and served as a leading voice to the civil rights movements – also providing the role of benefactor. Belafonte spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and bankrolled the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group led by John Lewis. The music legend also traveled with Poitier to Mississippi with a doctor’s bag full of $70K cash to help fund voter registration in the Freedom Summer campaign.
Belafonte enlisted celebrities like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis to join him in the final and successful voting rights march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.
In the ’80’s, Belafonte turned his attention and efforts to Africa, helping to found the organization USA for Africa, which helped conceive of the hit song, “We are the World” which raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia. He also helped drive efforts to get American and Europeans celebrities to boycott apartheid South Africa.
Of his efforts, Belafonte said, “To speak out against an unjust war was treasonous, to speak against the treatment of Blacks made you a Communist dupe. But if you feel in your heart that you have a responsibility because of your good fortunes to advance justice and human rights, then you hang in.”
Belafonte also made headlines for his opposition of the Iraq War, similar to his opposition of the Vietnam War decades before. In 2006, he called President George W. Bush, “The greatest terrorist in the world.”
The music legend made headlines again in 2016 after the campaign of (at the time) presidential hopeful Donald Trump lit a fire under the civil rights activist. He served as co-chair for the national Women’s March protest against Trump in 2017.
When he was interviewed at the time, Belafonte said, “I’m playing a role that I feel equipped and I feel knowledgeable about. I’m going to be 90 years old in a couple of weeks, and I think that to be of mind and capacity to be able to still contribute to helping to make our union a better place, to help our country become a better place, is a joyous task.”