“I’ve always looked at the world and thought, what can I do next? Where do we go from here? How can we fix it? And that’s still how I look at the world, because there is so much to be done.”
When Harry Belafonte died on April 25, many people were quick to honor him not only as a luminous, barrier-breaking singer and actor but as an outspoken lifelong crusader for civil and human rights. I am especially grateful for his enduring legacy as a champion for children in the United States and across the world. He was a wonderful friend and a longtime supporter of the Children’s Defense Fund’s mission and work, especially lifting up young people who have beaten the odds. He overcame long odds himself as a poor Black boy growing up in Harlem and Jamaica, and he later said he was an activist from birth—determined to do everything he could to help change the odds for others.
His starring role as a warrior for social justice was clear early on in the Civil Rights Movement. By the early 1960s Harry Belafonte had already been a leading man in films like Carmen Jones and Island in the Sun, won a Tony, an Emmy, and Grammy Awards, and become the first artist in the U.S. to sell a million copies of a record in a year with 1956’s Calypso. This made him one of the most recognizable Black men in the country as he (along with his dear friend and rare peer Sidney Poitier) tirelessly raised money and awareness for the Movement, traveling to the South at great personal risk, working closely with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and encouraging other Hollywood celebrities to support the cause. When he looked back later at one specific assignment, coordinating fellow artists to participate in the March on Washington, he said: “We had to seize this opportunity and make our voices heard. Make those who are comfortable with our oppression—make them uncomfortable—Dr. King said that was the purpose of this mission . . . To mobilize the cultural force behind the cause—Dr. King saw that as hugely strategic. We use celebrity to the advantage of everything. Why not to the advantage of those who need to be liberated?”
In every cause he engaged in throughout his life, from organizing the “We Are the World” fundraiser to speaking out against apartheid to serving for decades as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, that is how Harry Belafonte used his own celebrity. Years later he described another seminal lesson he learned from Dr. King: “I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. ‘I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,’ he said. ‘We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.’ That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. ‘I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,’ he answered. ‘And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.’” Harry Belafonte added: “Deep in my soul, I know there are more Rosa Parks, more Dr. Kings, and more Ella Bakers ready to emerge. Perhaps we are the firefighters who can save the burning house.” He believed this, and he set the example.
In 2014, Harry Belafonte was presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar that solidified his rare “EGOT-winner” status and recognized his lifelong work for social justice. In his acceptance speech he remembered how it felt to be an 8-year-old in a movie theater watching a blockbuster “Tarzan of the Apes” film on the big screen, with its racist, white supremacist stereotypes: “It was an early stimulus to the beginning of my rebellion, rebellion against injustice and human distortion, and hate. How fortunate for me that the performing arts became the catalyst that fueled my desire for social change . . . It was [Paul] Robeson who said, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice.’ This Robeson environment sounded like a desired place to be, and given the opportunity to dwell there, has never disappointed me.” Harry Belafonte was a voice of radical truth his entire life, and I am deeply grateful he never stopped sharing his incomparable voice with the rest of the world.