Human and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (Malik El-Shabazz) have become so indelibly symbolic of 1960s African America that students of the era sometimes forget that not all of the important leaders from the period died when they were assassinated. One such still-surviving leader is Harry Belafonte. The release of his biographical documentary, Sing Your Song, along with accompanying book titled My Song in 2011 reminded the world just how far African America has come since the 1960s and how much work apparently remains to be done.
Belafonte also appeared during 2011 in The Black Power Mixtape, released earlier this month on DVD. In it, his voice is presented alongside that of such astounding American citizens as Angela Y. Davis, Erykah Badu, Stokely Carmichael, Danny Glover, and Bobby Seale within a context rarely entertained when looking at the “black radicalism” of the 1960s.
Some of the images in Sing Your Song are exactly what you might expect to see in a documentary on the life of a man once described as “America’s first black matinee idol,” and whose singing career in the 1950s rivaled Elvis Presley’s. There are clips of the political turmoil that characterized so much of the 1960s, others of Belafonte’s impoverished beginnings in Harlem, New York, and vintage footage of the actor-singer at the height of his creative powers. Binding all of these together in the film, just as it does in the book is Belafonte’s gravelly voice now tempered by a lifetime of lending it to showmanship and movement-building.
Among the images that might startle many modern viewers are those which reveal just how influential, and daring, Belafonte was during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. While his initial involvement came in 1956 at the request of Martin Luther King Jr. himself, he eventually came to serve for all intended purposes as the unofficial liaison between the White House and the movement. He did the same on behalf of the movement and the world. The position of orator and leader of peaceful demonstrations made King more visible. But that as an empowering liaison who won the support of white celebrities to the civil rights cause, and who channeled untold numbers of dollars toward financing that cause, made Belafonte equally essential.
The Singer and the King
For some sense of just how dynamic and empowering his presence on the scene was, consider this: eighteen years before the Oprah Winfrey Show made its 1986 debut, and twenty-four years before Jay Leno took over his current job in 1992 as host of The Tonight Show, Belafonte sat in as a guest host for Johnny Carson for a week in February 1968. During that brief time, he reformatted the show to feature some of the most brilliant political minds in the country, including that of Robert Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Dionne Warwick, and Martin Luther King Jr. During King’s appearance, just two months before his assassination, he boldly asked the civil rights leader, “Do you fear for your life?” To which King responed:
“I’m more concerned about doing a good job, doing something for humanity and what I consider the will of God, than about longevity. Ultimately, it isn’t so important how long you live. The important this is how well you live.”
Occupations of Yesterday and Today
Belafonte was only twenty-one when jazz greats Charlie Parker, Al Haig, Max Roach, and Tommy Potter backed his debut as a professional singer during an intermission at New York’s Royal Roost in early 1949. His recording career launched the same year and he gradually grew into prominence as a singer until his 1956 album, Calypso, became the first in recording history to sell a million copies.
He made his screen debut in the film Bright Road (opposite Dorothy Dandridge) in 1952. Like a number of socially and politically conscious actors of the period (such as Lena Horne), he avoided stereotypical roles and went on to star in such groundbreaking films as Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959). Except for the 1960s, when so much of his life was absorbed by the Civil Rights Movement, he continued to take on choice roles each decade thereafter––including that of the gun-toting preacher in Buck and Preacher (with his friend Poitier as Buck in 1972).
Having won Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards, a Tony Award, and many other awards, at the golden age of 84 Belafonte has earned the right to rest on his laurels. Yet he remains as committed in 2011 to the concept of battling injustice as he was in 1960. In an interview with Julie Walker for The Root, he shared the following wisdom regarding Occupy Wall Street:
“It’s an interesting crossroads because most of this current manifestation appears to be a class interest, but if you talk to the young people engaged in it, they’ve gone beyond that. But a lot of black people and a lot of people from the Latin community still think that, well, you know, this is like their thing — now they’re hurting, so now they need us.
“Interestingly enough, there have been no delineations within the Wall Street Occupation movement. It hasn’t said, ‘Bring us your black, bring us your Latino, bring us your tired, bring us your poor.’ It just says, ‘Here we are. We’re unhappy, and all people who are unhappy can join us and let’s see where we go.’”
NEXT: Countdown of 10 Amazing Moments from the Year 2011: No. 8 Execution in Georgia
by Aberjhani, National African American Art Examiner
co-author Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL, the Power of Illuminated Love
A Few Pages from One Author’s 2011 Journal
- Introduction to Countdown of 10 Amazing Moments from the Year 2011
- Countdown of 10 Amazing Moments from the Year 2011: No.10 Samuel L. Jackson’s $7 Billion Triumph
- Looking at the World Through Michael Jackson’s Left Eye
- The Approaching 100thAnniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
- What Osama Bin Laden’s Death Indicates about Barack Obama’s Leadership
- Literary Legacies of Savannah Georgia
- Events, Book Highlight Flannery O’Connor Legacy