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Harry Belafonte, radical activist and entertainer with a 'rebel heart,' dies at 96

Portrait Of Harry Belafonte
Posted at 10:10 AM, Apr 25, 2023

(CNN) -- Harry Belafonte, the dashing singer, actor and activist who became an indispensable supporter of the civil rights movement, has died, his publicist Ken Sunshine told CNN.

He was 96.

Belafonte died Tuesday morning of congestive heart failure, Sunshine said.

Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso" after the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit, "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)." He also became a movie star after acting in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, "Carmen Jones."

But Belafonte biggest contributions took place offstage. He was a key strategist, fundraiser and mediator for the civil rights movement. He continually risked his entertainment career -- and at least once his life -- for his activism. He became a close friend of the Rev. Martin

Luther King Jr., who often retired to Belafonte's palatial New York apartment to talk strategy or escape the pressures of leading the civil rights movement.

A voracious reader with a burning disdain for injustice, Belafonte's political consciousness was shaped by the experience of growing up as the impoverished son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.

"I've often responded to queries that ask, 'When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?' ''he once said. "My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first."

The scope of Belafonte's activism was astonishing. He saw the civil rights movement as a global struggle. He led a campaign against apartheid in South Africa, and befriended Nelson Mandela. He mobilized support for the fight against HIV/AIDS and became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also came up with the idea for recording the 1985 hit song, "We Are the World," which assembled a constellation of pop and rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, to raise money for famine relief in Africa.

Belafonte didn't mellow as his wealth and fame grew. He drew criticism after calling President George W. Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world" for leading an invasion of Iraq, and assailed Black celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyonce for not taking bolder stands on social justice. He criticized Barack Obama so much during the then Senator's first presidential run in 2008 that Obama asked him, "When are you going to cut me some slack?"

"What make you think that's not what I've been doing?" Belafonte responded.

Belafonte's hero and mentor

Harold George Belafonte Jr. was born March 1, 1927 in New York city to poor Caribbean immigrants. His father worked as a cook on merchant ships and abandoned the family when Belafonte was young. Belafonte also spent some of his boyhood in Jamaica, the former British colony and his mother's native country, where he witnessed White English authorities mistreating Black Jamaicans. He returned to New York City's Harlem neighborhood by 1940 to live with his mother, Melvine, who struggled to hold her family together amid grinding poverty.

"She was the one who taught him that you shouldn't let the sun go down without fighting against injustice," Judith E. Smith, author of "Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical," says about Belafonte's mother.

Belafonte had a tumultuous childhood and often had to fend for himself.

"The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid," he told a magazine interviewer. "My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish."

Belafonte dropped out of high school and enlisted in the US Navy in 1944. He was relegated to manual labor on the ship and didn't see combat, but the experience proved to be profound. He met college educated Black men who gave him a wider exposure to the world, talking to him about big issues such as segregation and colonialism. The experience of fighting against facism abroad while coming back to segregation at home angered Belafonte, much like many Black veterans from World War II.

He drifted into the entertainment field almost by accident. Belafonte was working as a janitor in New York when he attended a play at the American Negro Theater. He was so swept up by the performance that he decided to become an actor.

He eventually studied acting at a workshop attended by classmates such as Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and Bea Arthur. He also fell into singing in nightclubs -- once in a band that included jazz greats Charlie Parker and Max Roach -- and landed a recording contract in 1949.

Belafonte had natural charisma, on stage and behind the microphone. He won a Tony Award for his acting on Broadway and was the first African American to win an Emmy award for his 1959 variety show.

Belafonte also looked for a way to merge his activism with his career and found a mentor and friend in Paul Robeson. The Black stage and film actor was a renaissance man, a star athlete and Ivy League-educated intellectual who became an outspoken civil rights activist and a critic of US foreign policy. Robeson was eventually blacklisted for his activism during the McCarthy era.

Belafonte called Robeson part of his "moral compass."

"For me, Mr. Robeson was the sparrow. He was an artist who made those of us in the arts understand the depth of that calling, when he said, "Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization's radical voice."

His friendship with MLK

Belafonte also built a friendship with King, another a powerful Black leader. King often flew to New York City to raise money for the movement and to meet key advisors. During one trip, he called Belafonte, greeting him with, "We've never met, so you may not know who I am."

The two men met at a New York church where King was speaking and retired after the event to a basement room to talk.

"It was just us at a card table with straight-back chairs," Belafonte recalled. "What was supposed to be a few minutes led to almost four hours. I liked his courage, his thoughts, his ideas and his mission. I committed to him after that."

Belafonte's relationship with King would prove to be crucial. Belafonte had star power, connections, and more importantly, a willingness to risk all to help the civil rights movement. He raised money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that King co-founded and led. Belafonte also helped bail out activists who had been jailed during civil rights campaigns, and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.

He risked more than his career at times. In 1964, Belafonte and his friend and fellow actor Sidney Poitier traveled to Mississippi to deliver a doctor's bag filled with $70,000 to support voter registration efforts. Belafonte says the pair were chased and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan but eventually succeeded in hand-delivering their money.

Belafonte delivered crucial help to King's family as well. He paid for housekeepers and babysitters while King traveled the country. And he took out a life insurance policy for the civil rights leader that became one of the family's primary sources of financial support after King's assassination.

"Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open," Coretta Scott King later said in her memoir.

Belafonte also became one of King's most trusted friends. King often stayed in Belafonte's Upper West Side apartment, and he wrote the outline to one of his most famous speeches -- his 1967 address denouncing the Vietnam War -- in Belafonte's home.

King was a self-contained man in public who rarely let his guard down. But in rare photos that capture King breaking into a huge, uninhibited grin, Belafonte is often at his side, hugging him and sharing some private joke. There is a marvelous YouTube clip showing King telling a joke to Belafonte when the entertainer filled in as a host on "The Tonight Show."

Belafonte provided more than emotional support to King, though. King relied on him for advice and strategy, says Miller, author of "Becoming Belafonte."

"He (Belafonte) was already a radical and already thinking about how Black liberation should unfold," Miller says. "He had already been in these groups where everybody was talking about, what should you to do to organize? How do you make change?"

Belafonte in his later years

Being a radical was essential to how Belafonte defined himself. As he got older, his silky singing voice lowered to a gravely whisper and he walked with a cane. But he never lost his movie-star looks or his hunger for radical change. In 2013, he was awarded the NAACP's highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. He said during his acceptance speech that what was missing from the contemporary struggle for freedom is "radical thought."

"America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such quest," he said.

Belafonte also was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989, the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He also became a mentor to other artists, just as Robeson had inspired him years before.

He spoke with pride about the racial protests that spread across the US in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, writing that "we have never had so many White allies, wailing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice that free us all in the end..."

A group of Black students approached Belafonte in Harlem in 2016 and asked if there was anything he was still looking for, despite his advanced age.

"What I've always been looking for: Where resides the rebel heart?" Belafonte replied. "Without the rebellious heart, without people who understand that there's no sacrifice we can make that is too great to retrieve that which we've lost, we will forever be distracted with possessions and trinkets and title."

Belafonte never lost his rebellious heart. Blessed with looks, wealth and fame, he could have been content with being the King of Calypso. But he made another choice. His made his biggest contributions offstage.

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