S. E. Williams
As a child Harry Belafonte’s mother gave him some wise advice, “[N]ever go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.″
Today, many are giving testimony to how he devoted much of his life following his mother’s counsel. A pioneering actor, singer, activist and humanitarian, Belafonte left a legacy for generations to follow.
Born in Harlem to parents of Caribbean descent–his mother was Jamaican, and his father from the island of Martinique–Belafonte died Tuesday, April 25 of congestive heart failure at his home in New York.
Although Belafonte was a celebrated entertainer, he will perhaps be best remembered around the world, as a humanitarian and for his activism, particularly in the realm of civil rights.
It’s been reported that the man he most admired as a forerunner in Black entertainment activism, the late, great Paul Robeson, inspired Belafonte with a belief that artists should be the “gatekeepers of the truth.”
It was purportedly Belafonte’s belief in this instruction that led him to begin limiting his work in entertainment to devote his time and sincere efforts to activism in the 1960s, a devotion that continued for the rest of his life.
Belafonte did more than give lip service to the cause of liberation for Black America. As a friend and ally of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he is known to have risked both his life and livelihood in support of the movement this included raising funds and at times, personally transporting those dollars to support activists and civil rights protest activities in the deep south. He worked tirelessly, marching, meeting, advocating, organizing and participating in benefit concerts, while also inspiring and rallying his peers in the entertainment industry to donate and/or get involved.
Just as he was inspired to activism by Robeson, Belafonte became an inspiration in his own right to Black artists in the entertainment industry and many others across the country including California State Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-60).
Jackson recalled how he first learned of Harry Belafonte while watching a Tavis Smiley hosted, State of Black America broadcast on C-SPAN in the early 2000’s. “When he spoke, I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’” Jackson further noted how in that moment, he knew he would like to meet Belafonte some day.
Jackson then fast-forwarded in time to when he was chair of the Black Student Union at Cal State University, San Bernardino and the school scheduled an event featuring Belafonte as speaker. “It was my responsibility to pick him up from the Beverly Hills Hotel [and drive him to CSUSB]. We hit it off so much that he invited me and some other students to join him for a Youth Summit,” he confided. The summit was held on the site of the Onondaga Nation near Nedrow, New York in 2004.
“We talked about issues of the day and how to stay involved. The conversation was definitely important,” Jackson stressed. “Danny Glover, one of his [Belafonte’s] greatest mentees was also there.” During the summit there was discussion about the importance of using one’s celebrity for social change. He further noted how Belafonte really understood and talked about the importance of understanding the inside and outside game [of politics]…that you need both.
There was however, one thing Belafonte shared with Jackson that left a lasting impression. “He told me his greatest regret of his generation was not passing on the wisdom, knowledge and tactics of the activism and nonviolence of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.” In other words, how to build and sustain a successful movement.
“He said it was his generation’s job to open the door so their children would not have to worry about the activism, that their children would benefit from the [economic and other progress attained].”
Despite progress of the Civil Rights era however, subsequent generations have continued to face barriers and Belafonte felt his own generation did not do enough to pass on the knowledge of how to do the work of non-violent activism as a way to prepare them for the struggle.
Jackson again noted how this is what Belafonte shared with him as his greatest regret. To dramatize its importance, Jackson pointed to the the 2020 death of George Floyd and how that incident finally sparked and reignited the activism of Belafonte’s era.
His mark on entertainment
Before his important work as a activist and humanitarian, Belafonte’s efforts as an entertainer were acclaimed. In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his lead role in the Broadway musical, Almanac. He was also the first to have a ‘certified million-selling album by a solo artist for his 1956 album, Calypso. And, in 1960, Belafonte became the first Black man to win an Emmy, receiving the prestigious award for his TV special, Tonight with Harry Belafonte.
Born in poverty, Belafonte once shared how poverty was his mother’s midwife. “She had her children in poverty. But she also found a road to bring us a sense of purpose, and she taught us how to be valiant in the face of oppression.”
Belafonte admitted he was not quite sure precisely when social and political activism became his mission but stressed how hard it was to be born into poverty and not “develop some instinct for survival and resistance to those things that oppress you.”
He advocated that dissent is central to any democracy and cautioned that “Movements don’t die, because struggle doesn’t die.”
Rest in power, Harold George Belafonte Jr.