Harry Belafonte, who pursued a career in movies and music while supporting the civ¬ il rights movement, was bom a first genera¬ tion American in New York. At age eight, he returned to his mother’s native Jamaica for five years, moving back to New York to attend high school in Harlem for two years before joining the navy in 1944.
It was after his return to the US that Bela¬ fonte fell in love with the theater. While doing janitorial work, someone gave him tickets to Home Is the Hunter, and Belafonte was impressed enough to join the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York.
He was heard singing one ofhis original songs during a production, and was immediately signed to a jazz club called the Royal Roost. He launched his pop¬ ular singing career, touring for two years before deciding to quit. He then became enamored with African inspired Caribbean folk music and its cousin, calypso.
A world class performer, Belafonte pro¬ moted these two styles, and popularized African-based rhythms. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he crossed all lines, gain¬ ing a reputation throughout America and the world, developing a name that he often lent to the support of civil rights crusaders led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see no. 91).
Holding a special place in the move¬ ment because he was such a celebrity, Bela¬ fonte was sought out by John F. Kennedy and became influential in forming an alliance between Kennedy and King. He organized a massive march for school inte¬ gration with Bayard Rustin (see no. 71), and was instrumental in securing celebrity support for the 1963 March on Washington.
His name held a lot of weight both in the African-American community and the broader entertainment industry, and he was often able to enlist the popular public enter¬ tainers who swayed the opinions of so many Americans.
Even while he was assisting King and others, Belafonte was supporting a massive career as an entertainer. Appearing in Bright Road (1953), Carmen Jones (1954), The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), he maintained a high profile and a reputation as a dazzling screen star.
But his main source ofpride continued to be his involvement in the civil rights move¬ ment: “A couple of Broadway shows closed down at night to let some of the artists come, as they had done also at the March on Washington…. I was very proud of us, many of us black and white who did that.”
Belafonte continues to be active. In 1990, he organized a reception for South Africa’s new president, Nelson Mandella, and celebrated the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights of the Child with the United Nations.