“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.
The conservative Republican made history when she won a seat in Congress, despite backlash over recent racially-charged comments.
In the last Senate race to be called, Mississippi has elected its first female Senator. Cindy Hyde-Smith will hold one of the Republicans' 53 seats to Democrats' 47 seats, setting a new record of 24 women in the Senate next year. However, the victory as a mark of social progress is tainted due to Hyde-Smith's history of racially-charged comments and sheltered background.
Leading up to the election, Hyde-Smith received backlash over a video of her joking with a supporter that if she were invited to a "public hanging," she'd be in "the front row." Following public outcry, she released an apology, stating, "For anyone who was offended by my comment, I certainly apologize."
New York Post
At the same time, however, she dismissed the criticism as "ridiculous." Claiming that she possessed no ill intentions, she framed the comment as nothing more than banter with a supporter, stating, "In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous."
The conservative Senator has the public divided over whether Mississippi is heading towards a more inclusive future or embracing a troubled past. Hyde-Smith's "public hanging" comments evoke the state's ignominious history of mob lynchings, Jim Crow, and legally-enforced segregation. On Friday, the Jackson Free-Press uncovered that the 59-year-old graduated from a southern private school established in the '70s to eschew desegregation orders after the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.
Mississippi has been criticized for allowing segregated private schools as recently as 2017. Hyde-Smith's alma mater, Lawrence County Academy, hosted a mascot dressed as a Confederate general and displayed a Confederate flag. The Senator elected to send her daughter to a similar "segregation academy."
CNN also looked into Hyde-Smith's past and reported that she's advocated a revisionist view of the Civil War and backed a measure to honor a Confederate soldier's efforts to "defend his homeland." Additionally, the Senator's Facebook page displays pictures from 2014 in which she's posing with Confederate artifacts during a visit to Beauvoir, the hometown of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The photo's caption reads, "Mississippi history at its best!"
On Tuesday, Hyde-Smith credited her win to the state's dedication to "conservative values." In her victory speech, she said, "The reason we won is because Mississippians know me and they know my heart. This win tonight, this victory, it's about our conservative values, it's about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians: our faith, our family."
Hyde-Smith received her strongest support from Mississippi's rural and predominantly white counties, according to The New York Times. CNN also attributed the win to Donald Trump's last-minute trips to the state. During a Monday night rally in Biloxi, Trump told the crowd, "She is respected by all. Some long-term senators, they've been down there, they told me, this is a woman that gets it. She's smart, she's tough, and she loves you." He went on, "She produces like few produce. This is a very, very special person."
After a race that was closer than anticipated, Democrat Mike Espy conceded to Hyde-Smith on Tuesday. He offered hopeful regards to the new Senator, stating, "[She] has my prayers as she goes to Washington to unite a very divided Mississippi."
Los Angeles Times