“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.
Liberty Project April Time Capsule: A Look Back in History
Liberty Project Takes A Look Back: These are significant U.S. events from the month of April over the years...
Liberty Project Time Capsule: A Look Back in History
On April 17, 1989 – Polish labor union Solidarity attained legal status after years of struggle, making way for the downfall of the Polish Communist Party.
On April 18 1776 – Paul Revere and William Dawes rode out of Boston at night to warn patriots at Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.
On April 19,1775 – 70 armed militiamen faced off on Lexington Green with a British guard unit. The confrontation is credited by many as the start of the American Revolution.
On April 19, 1943 – Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto stage a revolt against Nazi troops attempting to deport them to death camps
On April 25, 1967 – The first law legalizing abortion, outside of cases when the woman's life was threatened, was signed by Colorado Republican Governor John Love
On April 25, 1994 – Multiracial elections held for the first time in South Africa vote in Nelson Mandela as president and F.W. de Klerk as vice president
On April 28, 1945 – Italian fighters shot the dictator Benito Mussolini and end 23 years of Fascist rule in Italy.
On April 30, 1789 – George Washington becomes the first President of the United States of America on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.
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