“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
June Time Capsule - A look back in history
June 3, 1972 – Sally Jan Priesand is the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the U.S.A., (the first in the world being Regina Jones in 1935, who died in Auschwitz in 1944), breaking with thousands of years of patriarchal tradition in the Jewish faith.
June 4, 1989 – Troops in China fire on unarmed pro-reform protesters in Tiananmen Square. The People's Army used tanks, machine-guns, clubs and tear gas on their own citizens. The Chinese government claimed that only 300 people were killed, but estimates point to over 3,000. After the massacre, over 1,600 demonstrators were arrested and jailed. 27 were executed.
June 5, 1968 – Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated while leaving the Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles following a celebration for his victory in the California presidential primary.
June 6, 1872 – Susan B. Anthony is arrested, tried and fined $100 (which she does not pay) for attempting to vote in a presidential election in Rochester, NY. It would take 88 more years for Congress to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women this fundamental right.
June 6, 1944 – The largest amphibious landing in history began as Allied forces landed in Normandy, France --- otherwise known as D-Day. By the end of the day, 150,000 soldiers had landed, with 15,000 wounded or killed.
June 7, 1965 – Citing privacy "zones" guaranteed by the First, Third, Fourth and Ninth Amendments, the US Supreme Court strikes down a Connecticut statute which criminalized counseling and other medical treatment to married couples for the purpose of preventing conception. This established a new constitutional right; the right to privacy in marital relations, including freedom from government intrusion into matters surrounding birth control.
June 12, 1898 – The Philippines declare their independence from Spain, only to be invaded and occupied by US forces. The Philippines remains a US colony until after WWII.
June 12, 1963 – Medgar Evers is assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. The Civil Rights leader had been working to integrate schools and register black voters in the South.
June 13, 1971 – The Pentagon Papers, secret documents that revealed the US strategy in the Vietnam War, are published by The New York Times.
June 13, 1966 – The Supreme Court finds in favor of Miranda in Miranda v. Arizona, guaranteeing that accused people must be told of their rights before being questioned by the police. These rights include the right to remain silent, the right to know that anything said can be used against that person in a court, and the right to have an attorney present during any questioning. These rights are known as the "Miranda Rights."
June 15, 1215 – King John signs the Magna Carta, guaranteeing his subjects basic rights, which become the foundation of all democracies that follow.
June 17, 1972 – Five men are arrested at the National Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. An investigation follows which eventually implicates President Nixon and his administration in illegal activities and an extensive cover-up. A House Judiciary Committee adopts three articles of impeachment against the president in July 1974, and in August of that same year, Richard M. Nixon becomes the first US President to resign.
June 28, 1914 – Archduke Ferdinand, The Crown Prince of Austria, and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo which leads to the outbreak of WWI. Five years later, with over nine million combatants and seven million civilians dead, the war formally ended with the signing of The Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations was then formed to prevent such a horrible event from taking place again. It failed, and Europe plunged into economic depression which laid fertile ground for nationalism and, eventually, the outbreak of WWII.
June 30, 1971 – A debate over lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, which began in WWII and increased during the Vietnam War, centered on the argument that young men conscripted to fight and die for their country should not be denied the right to vote. This debate concludes on June 30, 1971, with the enactment of the 26th Amendment, which grants all American citizens 18 years or older this fundamental right.