“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.
A victim of anti-gay hate, the LGBT icon's ashes are interred in Washington, DC.
Twenty years ago this month, a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming.
Friday, on the other side of the country, his ashes were interred in a crypt at the Washington National Cathedral while thousands looked on. They came to celebrate the life of Shepard, who in the years since his death became a symbol of hope and love amidst anti-gay hate and oppression. For many LGBTQ+ people, the circumstances of his death bring memories of their own struggles, both inside the closet and out.
The public service was led by the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington and the Right Rev. Gene Robinson. Like Shepard, Robinson is an openly gay man, and poignantly, also the first elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Robinson had tears in his eyes as he welcomed attendees. To those who are LGBT, he said "many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back." He referred to Shepard's burial at the cathedral as a homecoming, saying "it is a remarkable step forward."
Shepard's father thanked the attendees for their support. "It's so important that we now have a home for Matt... A home that is safe from haters. A home that he loved dearly." Robinson praised both of Shepard's parents, who founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to combat hate crimes across the country, for devoting their lives to LGBT activism.
During the service, Robinson shared a touching anecdote from the police officer who first saw Shepard the day after his brutal attack. When she arrived, a deer was lying beside Shepard's body and looked the officer straight in the eye before running away.
"What she said was: 'That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.' And there's no doubt in my mind either. God has always loved Matt," Robinson said.
In October 1998, Shepard was tortured and robbed by two men he had encountered in a bar, and was subsequently abandoned for eighteen hours tethered to a chain-link fence. He died from his injuries five days later at the age of 21.
Prosecutors in his case alleged that Shepard was targeted because of anti-gay bigotry. The two attackers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were both sentenced to life in prison. Although characterizing the murder as a hate crime has been disputed by some, outrage over Shepard's death ultimately led to the passage of the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. James Byrd Jr, an African-American man killed by white supremacists in Texas, also inspired the legislation.
Shepard's funeral in 1998 was protested by the now-notorious Westboro Baptist Church carrying signs reading "God hates F*gs," "Matt in hell," "AIDS cures F*gs," among other hateful speech. During the trials for Shepard's killers, the group Angel Action peacefully counter-protested the church's signs while wearing white angel costumes. The costumes had ten-foot wingspans that covered and silenced the church protesters.
Throughout the Friday service, Robinson urged the crowd not only to commemorate Shepard, but to also confront the prejudice and violence that faces the LGBTQ community today. Marginalized factions within the community are particularly at risk of hate, like transgender people. "There are forces who would erase them from America," Robinson said. Twice he encouraged the crowd to "go vote."
Robinson received a long-standing ovation as he closed the service, choking down the final words:
"There are three things I'd say to Matt: 'Gently rest in this place. You are safe now. And Matt, welcome home.' Amen."