Despite the fact that some fans of his music may not know this side of him, it is perhaps as an activist where Harry Belafonte has made the most impact. From his earliest days as an emerging pop idol, Belafonte made it part of his mission to address injustice and inequality in whatever form they took, even at the risk of his own wellbeing.
Belafonte began his political and social activism in the 1950s, counting the singer Paul Robeson and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as friends and fellow activists for social and economic justice. His friendship with Dr. King was of utmost importance to him and he frequently was able to use his celebrity and connections to help the cause of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Dr. King said of his friend, “Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the Civil Rights movement here in America. We are blessed by his courage and moral integrity.”
His contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are legion and range from the high-profile: helping to organize the performers and celebrity speakers at The March on Washington in 1963 to the virtually undercover: flying into Greenwood, Mississippi in 1964 with Sidney Poitier and thousands of dollars of cash for the civil rights workers in that state, at great personal risk.
The fact is, you can’t separate Belafonte’s performing arts activities from his political ones. One constantly informs the other and vice versa. One of these overlaps is in the case of South Africa. Belafonte was a driving force in the anti-Apartheid movement long before it was “fashionable” in the United States and his 1965 album recorded with now legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba won a Grammy for best folk recording.
He was appointed to be the cultural advisor for the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy and in 1987, he accepted an appointment as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, thus making him the second American to hold this title – the first being Danny Kaye. For 60 years, from Africa to Cuba to South America, the Deep South and South Central Los Angeles, Harry Belafonte has worked tirelessly to promote human rights causes and continues to do so to this day, having recently taken up the reigns of healthcare workers union 1199SEIU’s Bread & Roses cultural program http://www.1199seiu.org/media/magazine/olat_april_2009/olat_409_bread_roses.cfm
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