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Artist, activist Harry Belafonte passes

Powerful voice for change quieted at 96

Brian Wright O’Connor
Artist, activist Harry Belafonte passes
Harry Belafonte and an 11-year-old Rwandan refugee girl, Akimane. PHOTO: COURTESY UNICEF/BETTY PRESS

Harry Belafonte, the son of West Indian immigrants who scaled artistic heights on concert stages and movie screens but was most devoted to human and civil rights advocacy, died last week at the age of 96 in his New York apartment.

The iconic singer and actor launched his career by bringing the sound of the Caribbean to American living rooms as the “King of Calypso” in the mid-1950s. His lithe grace, stunning smile and husky tenor voice soon landed him movie and television roles.

But the allure of public acclaim and the wealth afforded by performances on stage and screen mattered less to Belafonte than how he could leverage fame and money to serve the cause of equal rights and human dignity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. with Harry Belafonte in Montgomery, Ala., 1965. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

He put his career at risk by aligning himself closely with the civil rights movement in its nascent stages, making constant appearances at protests and quietly financing much of the organizational work led by his close friend Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often stayed at Belafonte’s West End Avenue flat on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Belafonte later became closely identified with the battle against apartheid in South Africa, a cause that brought him to Boston numerous times, including the triumphant 1990 appearance of Nelson Mandela in the city shortly after his release from prison, having been incarcerated for 27 years.

“I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist,” wrote Belafonte in his 2011 memoir, “My Song.” “I was an activist who’d become an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I’d felt the need to fight injustice whenever I saw it, in whatever way I could. Somehow my mother had made me feel it was my job, my obligation. So I’d spoken up, and done some marching, and then found my power in songs of protest, and sorrow, and hope.”

In Boston, Belafonte found equally committed partners among members of the Free South Africa Movement, who hosted political leaders living in exile and led protests against Deak-Perera in the financial district for selling Kruggerands, gold coins produced by the apartheid regime. He made frequent appearances at New England Circle discussion gatherings in the 1980s hosted by the Dunfey family, owners of the Parker House, and accompanied Mandela on his trip to Boston.

By then, Belafonte’s celebrity role as a champion of folk and working-class ballads — like his first hit, “The Banana Boat Song,” better known as “Day-O” — had receded in the public mind, replaced with images of the tall and slender singer and actor, with his distinctive high forehead, café-au-lait complexion, widow’s peak and flashing eyes at the head of protest marches and sit-ins.

“Fearless is the word I would use to describe him,” said publicist Colette Phillips, who helped organize Mandela’s Boston appearances. “He was one of very few celebrities who was actually willing to put his conviction on the line even if it meant he would be blacklisted.”

Belafonte’s relationship with King began with a phone call in 1956. He attended the landmark March on Washington in 1963 and raised money to support King’s family after his assassination in 1968. His work brought him close to the Kennedy family and other prominent liberals in politics and society.

Harry Belafonte, George Wald, Mel King and Margaret Burnham. PHOTO: COURTESY DON WEST

In 1964, during Freedom Summer, Bob Moses of Boston called Belafonte to ask for money to finance the waves of students spreading across the Mississippi Delta to register voters. Belafonte offered to wire the money, but Moses just laughed. “They’ll never let us use a bank,” he said, according to accounts from the time. “You’ll have to bring it yourself.”

The singer called his friend, the late Sydney Poitier, who had acted with him in the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City in the 1940s, and they flew to a small rural airport, climbed into a car and barely escaped a Klan posse that pursued them on narrow country roads.

Belafonte frequently lamented that few artists, especially today, put their careers on the line to stand up for their beliefs, whether challenging the images of Blacks on the screen or policies hurting the poor and the marginalized.

“Back in 1959,” he told the New York Times in an interview, “I fully believed in the civil rights movement. I had a personal commitment to it, and I had my personal breakthroughs — I produced the first Black TV special, I was the first Black to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. I felt if we could just turn the nation around, things would fall into place.”

Accusing modern celebrities of turning “their back on social responsibility,” he said, “There’s no evidence that artists are of the same passion and of the same kind or commitment of the artists of my time. The absence of Black artists is felt very strongly because the most visible oppression is in the Black community.”

Malia Lazu, a Boston businesswoman and activist who worked for Belafonte on social activism and grassroots organizing efforts for five years, said he “always held our feet to the fire.”

“When I first started working for him,” she said, “he told me that within two months we were going to have a gathering of the young – 30,000 gang members to come to a convention to make a pledge to peace and criminal justice reform.”

Asked how they’d pull that off, Belafonte smiled and calmly said, “Nelson Mandela filled Yankee Stadium on one day’s notice. We’ll do it.” He reportedly said the same thing when asked how he would pull together an all-star cast of artists to perform the song “We Are the World” to benefit famine relief in Africa.

Lawrence Watson, a Boston singer who organized a concert for Belafonte when he received an honorary degree from the Berklee School of Music, grew up in the Eleanor Roosevelt projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn worshiping the singer.

“He had the courage to speak about the situation he faced as a Black man in America,” said Watson. “He inspired me. I had him and Paul Robeson and Berry Gordy as role models.”

Born as Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem in 1927 to a father from Martinique and a mother from Jamaica, he moved to Jamaica at age 9 to live with relatives before returning to the U.S. four years later. He attended George Washington High School in New York but dropped out in 1944 to enlist in the Navy.

Back in New York after loading munitions by day and studying books by W.E.B. DuBois and others recommended by Black shipmates by night, he acted on the stage and sang in clubs. His breakthrough album, “Calypso,” came out in 1956 and stayed atop the Billboard charts for 31 weeks.

He became a leading attraction on concert stages throughout the U.S. and Europe and by 1959 was the most highly paid Black performer in history.

He starred with Dorothy Dandridge in a 1954 production of “Carmen Jones,” and in 1957, his screen role with Joan Fontaine in “Island in the Sun” suggested a romance with his co-actor, provoking outrage from segregationists.

Belafonte later produced and appeared in other films, including Spike Lee’s “Black KKKlansman.”

“About my own life, I have no complaints,” wrote Belafonte in his 2016 autobiography. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”

Belafonte’s first marriage came in 1948 to Marguerite Boyd, whom he met while stationed in Virginia. They had two children, Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte, who both survive him. He later married Julie Robinson, the only white member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe, and is survived by their two children, Gina and David Belafonte. His third marriage was to Pamela Frank, a photographer, in 2008.