Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Celebrating the Activism of Harry Belafonte

On November 8th The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that issues the Oscars, honored the legendary entertainer Harry Belafonte for his life-long devotion to humanitarian activism. Belafonte is an American treasure, whose career made him among the first crossover African-American stars while simultaneously being one of show-business’ most politicized. On stage, screen, and recordings, Belafonte was affable and very appealing, bringing the Caribbean musical style of Calypso into the mainstream, most notably with his famous interpretation of “The Banana Boat Song.”

Despite his jovial, audience friendly demeanor, he burned with a mighty passion for those afflicted and oppressed. He made no efforts to hide his distaste for racist and segregationists policies, many of which he faced personally. Many hotels, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line refused to allow African-American guests, despite booking them as performers. In 1968, during an appearance on Petula Clark’s NBC special, the British chanteuse placed her hand on Belafonte’s arm while they sang a tender duet. The show’s sponsor, Plymouth, wanted the entire number scrapped, however Clark insisted that it be aired intact or not be aired at all.

Like many politically outspoken entertainers in the 1950s, Belafonte was blacklisted. Despite this, he was never deterred from fighting for what he believed in. Belafonte was a close confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was also a strong supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement and Nelson Mandela, even as Mandela was considered a “terrorist” by the US government.

Prior to a 1954 appearance on Sullivan, Ed discovered that Belafonte was on the blacklist. Ed Sullivan asked Belafonte for an explanation. Harry Belafonte appealed to Sullivan’s proud Irish heritage, asking what the difference was between their struggle against the British and the African-American struggle against white oppression.

Belafonte went on to make his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as scheduled. Between 1953 and 1964, Harry Belafonte appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show a total of 10 times.

Ed & Harry Belafonte- T6619-4. 9.26.54