“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.
July Time Capsule: A Look Back in History
As July 4th creeps closer and closer thoughts of freedom and independence start to circulate. The 4th, marking the United State's independence from Great Britain in 1776, is celebrated across the country with cookouts, fireworks and the good ol' red white and blue. Here are a few other significant acts for the sake of liberty that occurred in July:
July 2, 1964 - President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the civil rights act of 1964. This induction prevented employment discrimination against race, sex, color, religion or nation of origin. The law was initially proposed by John F. Kennedy, who was unable to pass the act due to his assassination in 1963. Johnson then took responsibility for the continuation of said civil rights reform, signing the act in 1964 in front of many invited guests, including Martin Luther King Jr.
Lyndon B. Johnson signs the civil rights act of 1964 in front of spectators
July 5, 1946 - French Designer Louis Reard released a skimpy, two piece swimsuit of his own creation, dubbed the "bikini". While the bikini was not the first two piece swimsuit, it was the first to show great amounts of skin in an attempt to represent the feeling of freedom after World War II.
Louis Reard photographs Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini
July 5, 2016 - Alton Sterling, a 37 year old African American man, is shot dead by two caucasian police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The police were called to report a man in a red shirt threatened another man with a gun outside of his convenience store. Upon his arrest, officers were attempting to control Sterling's arms when he supposedly reached for the gun in his pocket. Sterling was killed due to several gunshot wounds in the chest and back. The controversy surrounding the case sparked several protests, as it is believed Sterling was shot with unjust reasoning. Its still up for debate.
Alton Sterling pinned down by two police officers shortly before he is shot
July 7, 1972 - On this day in history, JoAnne Misko and Susan Malone were the first two women to be sworn in as FBI agents. Previously, the position had solely encompassed male occupants, but with the induction of L. Patrick Gray as acting director of the FBI, came the opportunity for women to take the stage as special agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
JoAnne Misko (left) and Susan Malone (right) speak on their experience as the first two female FBI agents
July 18-23, 1966 - For five seemingly endless days, roaming gangs of street youths and angered citizens alike were combating the police department in Cleveland. After a dispute at a local bar, residents of the Hough neighborhood looted and rioted due to police racism and brutality being a normality. As the situation escalated, police encountered molotov cocktails and sniper fire from multiple rooftops. Eventually, the riots got so out of hand that the Cleveland national guard was called in. After a period of pseudo-martial law, the public unrest subsided. Then mayor of Cleveland, Ralph S. Locher and his advisors blamed the riots on "outside causes" such as several black rights groups. Today it is known that the unrest was not only due to mainstream racism but also because of overpopulation in the dilapidated area.
A young resident of the Hough neighborhood alludes the national guard
July 20, 1960 - The first ever Special Olympics is held at Chicago's Soldier Field. Around 1,000 athletes competed against one another in swimming and track competitions. Despite their disabilities, the athletes pushed on following the oath: "Let me win. But if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt".
The first Special Olympics is held in Chicago
July 20, 1969 - This momentous day in history marks the date that the first man set foot on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin disembark their landing craft, Eagle, and step right into the history books. The astronaut's four day journey included many hardships, but with their success came humanity's first steps off of our home planet.
Buzz Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission
July 26, 1948 - President Harry Truman signs executive order 9981, which ended segregation in the armed services. Ever since the revolutionary war, African Americans were vitally important in war. At last, their efforts were acknowledged and an end to racial segregation in the military was ended.
Malcolm X displays a newspaper after Truman signs executive order 9981
July 26, 1978 - This date is the birthday of Louise Joy Brown, who was the first baby born from IVF (in vitro fertilization). Her mother, Lesley Brown, had blocked fallopian tubes preventing her from conceiving a child. Luckily for her, scientist Robert Edwards and gynecologist Patrick Steptoe removed one of her matured eggs and combined it with her husband's sperm in their laboratory in order to form a healthy embryo. Several days later the embryo was then placed in Brown's uterus. A healthy baby was born via caesarean section thanks to this procedure.
Louise Joy Brown is born on July 26, 1978
July 27, 1953 - This day called the end to a very bloody, three year long war. The United States, Peoples Republic of China, North Korea and South Korea agreed on an armistice. The loss was huge on all sides, with deaths reaching the millions. With the presidential election of Dwight D. Eisenhower came his insinuated threats of nuclear action. Thankfully, the situation never escalated to that point. After years of bloodshed and gore all participating sides were ready to sign a peace agreement. This armistice created a demilitarized border between the north and the south, as well as prompting the release of any captured prisoners of war.
Soldiers celebrate the end to the Korean War
July 28, 1932 - The Great Depression plagued the people of the United States. Returning veterans from WWI were given certificates that granted each holder $1,000 each, which could be redeemed in 1945. However, many of these soldiers had lost the entirety of their wealth in the depression, prompting veterans to request the redemption dates of their certificates to be moved to 1932. The government denied this request and 15,000 protestors took to the streets, 90% of which were war veterans. The president at the time, Herbert Hoover, ignored their pleas and mobilized an army regiment to control the crowd in the capital. The veterans never had their financial needs met and president Hoover lost his re-election to Franklin D. Roosevelt while the country delved deeper into distress.
War veterans protest in Washington D.C.