‘A GIANT IN LIFE:’ Tributes pour in for longtime actor-activist

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist, was being remembered and celebrated by the entertainment industry and national civil rights organizations for his remarkable, barrier-breaking career and as a stalwart soldier in the civil rights movement.

Belafonte died April 25, from congestive heart failure at his home in New York. His wife, Pamela, was by his side. He was 96.

On Twitter, former President Barack Obama posted: “Harry Belafonte was a barrier-breaking legend who used his platform to lift others up. He lived a good life — transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style.”

The NAACP remembered Belafonte on Twitter “as a steadfast advocate for civil rights and a trail-blazing entertainer who paved the way for the countless Black actors who followed him.”

Closer to home, his endless work toward racial justice prompted Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable President Earl Ofari Hutchinson to hold a moment of silence tribute to Belafonte at the Celes King Civil Rights Monument in South Los Angeles. Hutchinson also called for Mayor Karen Bass and the L.A. City Council to name a local street in Belafonte’s honor.

“Belafonte was a giant in life,” Hutchinson said. “Naming a street or public space after him will be a testament to the impact he had on racial progress in L.A. and a continual reminder to Los Angeles residents of the ongoing battle for racial and economic justice in L.A.”

Belafonte was one of the first Black entertainers to cross over into mainstream success. One of the most successful singers of his day, Belafonte became a star with his signature hit songs “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” “Jamaica Farewell” and “Jump in the Line.”

That success ultimately led to leading roles in films like “Carmen Jones” and “Island in the Sun.”

He would ultimately come to be known for his activism. He began to speak out against the racism he experienced in Hollywood and encouraged the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr., in Harlem to West Indian immigrants in March 1927, but spent much of his youth in Jamaica.

In 1944, Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy where he was introduced to the works of W.E.B. Dubois and other African American authors.

In 1948, he married Marguerite Byrd and they had two children (Adrienne Biesemeyer and Shari Belafonte). They divorced in 1957. Belafonte would then marry Julie Robinson.

After he was discharged from the Navy, Belafonte became interested in acting and enrolled under the G.I. Bill at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop, where his classmates included Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando.

It was at the American Negro Theater, that he would meet his lifelong friend and fellow actor Sidney Poitier, who died last year.

As a Black male actor, roles were scarce. Belafonte, dubbed “The King of Calypso,” instead sought fame with music. His album, “Calypso,” was the first by a single artist to sell more than one million copies in 1956. It stayed at the top of the charts for 31 consecutive weeks.

The handsome and personable performer with the husky voice was an artist who wasn’t content just to be a music and movie star. He wanted to be known for his activism.

He befriended the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and put up much of the seed money to start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He stood with King and helped plan the historic March on Washington in 1963 and the Alabama March from Selma and Montgomery. He was also one of the main fundraisers for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“As artists and as human beings we rejoice in the knowledge that human experience has no color,” Belafonte once said.

One of Hollywood’s first Black-leading men, he starred with white actress Joan Fontaine in the 1957 film, “Island in the Sun,” generating outrage in the South. By 1959, Belafonte was the highest-paid Black performer in American history.

His 1960 special, “Tonight With Belafonte,” won an Emmy, the first for a Black performer. He was also a three-time Grammy Award-winner and a Tony Award winner. He received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, (an honorary Oscar) in 2014 for his humanitarian work.

His television appearance with white female singers Petula Clark in 1968 and Julie Andrews in 1969 angered viewers.

The Caribbean-American pop star’s later film career included “Buck and the Preacher,” opposite Poitier. The two also starred in “Uptown Saturday Night.” He also appeared in “White Man’s Burden,” and the 2018 film, ‘BlacKkKlansman’.

In 1985, he helped put together the all-star recording “We Are the World.” He was also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

As news of his death spread, the entertainment world and civil rights organizations flooded social media with tributes to the icon.

On Instagram, Oprah Winfrey posted, “Another ‘GREAT TREE’ has fallen: Harry Belafonte, a Trailblazer and Hero to us all. Thank you for your music, your artistry, your activism, your fight for civil rights and justice, especially risking your life back in the day to get money to the movement.”

Spike Lee, who directed Belafonte in “BlacKkKlansman,” which was the actor’s final film, said, “May God Have My Dear Friend Harry Belafonte At A Peaceful Rest.”

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “When I was a child, #HarryBelafonte showed up for my family in very compassionate ways. In fact, he paid for the babysitter for me and my siblings. I won’t forget. … Rest well, sir.”

Viola Davis applauded Belafonte for using his “profile and gifts to leave a legacy of activism, hope, dignity … excellence. You are now amongst our beautiful ancestors … continue to guide us! May flights of angels….”

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued the following statement.

“Harry Belafonte was a passionate civil rights icon whose contributions through the arts continue to inspire our fight for the freedom and liberation of Black and Brown people today.”

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which honored Belafonte in 2016 with its Lifetime Achievement Award, issued the following statement: “The world is a little dimmer today in losing such a legendary entertainer as Harry Belafonte but so much richer for having had such a tireless, lifelong humanitarian and activist for so many years.”

On Instagram, actor John Travolta, who starred with Belafonte in the film, “White Man’s Burden,” said, “I had the great pleasure of working with Harry Belafonte in 1995. He was the definition of grace, poise and generosity of spirit. We will miss you, Harry.”

“Thank you, Mr. B, for all of your years of mentorship, guidance, and lifetime of activism fighting for a better future for all of us,” said former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick.

Actor Jeffrey Wright wrote, “Harry Belafonte was a standard bearer, in the tradition of (Paul) Robeson, for generational artistry and deeply informed & committed social & political engagement. Maybe the last of a great tribe. He met the moment throughout his life. What a man.”

Belafonte received a number of accolades throughout his life.  He received a Kennedyy Center Honor in 1989, a National Medal of Arts in 1994, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000.

He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022 as an early influence.

Belafonte is survived by his wife, Pamela, four children, Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina, two stepchildren and eight grandchildren.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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