Harry Belafonte

United States

Harry BelafonteWith charm, wit and talent, Harry Belafonte has supported and encouraged civil and humanitarian causes around the world. He continuously fought for racial equality wherever he roamed, from the halls of Broadway to the streets of Birmingham. His life-long commitment to uplifting others and his courageous efforts to bring equality and peace has been an inspiration for many.

Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born on March 1st 1927 in poverty-stricken Harlem, New York. Though his broad musical talents cover many styles of music and dance, Harry’s signature calypso music comes from his family’s Caribbean roots. His father Harold Sr. was a Martiniquan chef in the Royal Navy and his mother was a Jamaican housekeeper. During his childhood Harry spent eight years living with his grandma in Jamaica where he learned the culture and music.

Like many African Americans, Harry was inspired by the nation’s efforts to bring racial equality and democracy to Europe during World War II. He dropped out of High School and lied about his age in order to join the Navy. While in the Navy, Harry received his education from other sailors and dock workers who were discussing the writings and theories of W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent African American philosophers. Unaware of the potential connection between his social justice education and his love of acting, he began developing his acting career. With money he earned from singing in New York clubs, Harry was able to study theater alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur and Sidney Poitier and performed at the American Negro Theatre. His theatrical and musical careers flourished because of his natural talent and his associations with key artists. His first singing appearance was opening for the Charlie Parker band, which included the likes of Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis.

His acting and singing talents quickly earned him great fame from the 1950’s onward. Over the years, Harry turned down millions of dollars in lucrative contracts for T.V., film and records. Multiple times he declined offers that required that he perform with a non-integrated cast or perform a role he felt was not positive towards African Americans. Harry always insisted that all people of color, no matter their role, be treated as equals on and off the stage. In 1956 he would become the first musician in the world to have an album go platinum. By 1960, Belafonte became the first African American T.V. Producer to win an Emmy. In addition to his multiple awards, Harry is also credited with introducing talented musical artists, such as Bob Dylan and Miriam Makeba to the American audiences.

”All my life I have firmly believed that as an artist and a human being, I cannot isolate myself from the struggles of my people; that their victories are my victories and their defeats are my defeats”

Though his musical rhythms are often light and positive, many who listen to Belafonte notice the deep political messages in his work. His musical career had begun prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Harry, like millions who served during WWII, came to find the ideals they fought for abroad were non-existent at home. He faced racist threats from white supremacists, racism from theater owners and even racism from network owners and advertising sponsors. With optimism, Harry continued forward, using his talents to bring about positive change and using his voice to bring awareness to noble causes.

Harry learned about social justice from the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois as well as his friend and mentor, Paul Robeson. Belafonte witnessed the harassment and career consequences that Robeson had faced from the government after he had become outspoken against racial inequalities. When the FBI began spying on Belafonte, he decided to curb his political speaking and begin supporting the civil rights movement from behind the scenes.

Though Belafonte still walked in picket lines, protests and rallies, his greatest support came when he leveraged his wealth to fund much of the movement. Every organization needs a fundraiser, accountant, tax consultant and financial advisor. Harry often took on those roles throughout the civil rights movement. He participated in concerts used to raise funds and awareness after the Emmet Till lynching and actively fundraised for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“My social and political interests are part of my career. I cannot separate them. My songs reflect the human condition. The role of art isn’t just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be.”

Because of his efforts, Belafonte was noticed by Martin Luther King, Jr. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the two men met and became close friends and organizers. He began by giving financial advice to Dr. King and soon became of one King’s most trusted advisors. Belafonte was also a friend and supporter of John F. Kennedy and became the key communicator between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy Administration. When Dr. King was held in Birmingham Jail, Belafonte organized fundraisers and benefit concerts to provide bail and to keep the campaign running.

In many ways, Harry Belafonte managed and expanded the economic engine of the civil rights movement, including the freedom rides organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). After working with the student groups organizing sit-ins, he donated $60,000 to support full time staff and provide an office for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He funded trips for African American students to visit and learn from the leaders of African nations and was also a key advocate in the organization of “Project Airlift.” Project Airlift allowed east African students, such as Wangari Maathai, to study and collaborate with students in the United States.

”All my life I have firmly believed that as an artist and a human being, I cannot isolate myself from the struggles of my people; that their victories are my victories and their defeats are my defeats”

After the success of the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte focused on supporting national and international humanitarian issues. Many of his albums and tours were specifically used to bring awareness and raise funds for political and social causes, such as South Africans during Apartheid, relief efforts for Haiti, campaigns against HIV/AIDS, orphan children in Rwanda, and famine relief for Ethiopia.

Harry continues to this day to speak out against war and violence. His most common technique is to use the power of art to influence others to act in positive ways. He is a major advocate for international peace and freedom and served over a decade as a goodwill ambassador with UNICEF.

Harry Belafonte is a moral hero because of his 50 years of dedication to civil rights, human rights and non-violence. He used his talents and fame to bring awareness and funds to many causes, and perhaps most important of all, he inspired, supported and encourage those involved in the struggle for racial equality.

Written by | last updated on March 1st, 2013