Black America Reflects on the Extraordinary Contribution of Harry Belafonte: Passes Away at 96

Black America Reflects on the Extraordinary Contribution of Harry Belafonte: Passes Away at 96


Harry Belafonte in Park City, Utah on Jan. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Victoria Will, file)

Harry Belafonte was the epitome of the activist and entertainer. The iconic actor has died. He was 96 years old.

According to his publicist Ken Sunshine, Belafonte died on the morning of April 25 of congestive heart failure.

Belafonte’s life and career were diverse. As a singer, he was dubbed the “King of Calypso” following the groundbreaking success of his 1956 hit, “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” He was a stage and screen actor. His big break came with the film adaptation of the Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones.”

Offstage, he was a passionate civil rights activist. He was a key strategist, fundraiser, and mediator for the civil rights movement, CNN reported. He was a close friend and confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For most of his life, he fought against injustice. He was born on March 1, 1927, in New York City to poor Caribbean immigrants. His childhood set the foundation for his consciousness. He grew up as the son of a poor Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant. His father worked as a cook on merchant ships but left the family when Belafonte was young.

Belafonte dropped out of high school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944, after which he happened into acting. Working at the time as a janitor in New York, he attended a play at the American Negro Theater. So inspired, he decided to become an actor. He eventually studied acting at a workshop attended by classmates such as Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur.

The seed for activism was planted in his childhood.

“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’” he once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both serve each other, but the activism is first.”

He joined the fight for civil rights with Martin Luther King and also fought against apartheid in South Africa and befriended Nelson Mandela. He fought against HIV/AIDS and became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. He also came up with the concept for recording the 1985 hit song “We Are the World,” which assembled a constellation of pop and rock stars, including Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen, to raise money for famine relief in Africa, CNN reported.

He was also known for being outspoken, which sometimes drew criticism such as when he called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” for leading an invasion of Iraq. He also called out Black celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyonce for not taking bolder stands on social justice. And he criticized Barack Obama so much during Obama’s first presidential run in 2008 that Obama asked him, “When are you going to cut me some slack?”

“What makes you think that’s not what I’ve been doing?” Belafonte responded.

Belafonte is survived by his wife Pamela, his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, Shari Belafonte, Gina Belafonte, David Belafonte, two stepchildren Sarah Frank and Lindsey Frank, and eight grandchildren.

Many in Black America took to Twitter to honor Belafonte.

Philosopher and political activist Cornel West tweeted, “I am deeply sad at the loss of my very dear brother – the great Harry Belafonte! His artistic genius, moral courage & loving soul shall live forever! God bless his precious family!”

Storyteller Torraine Walker tweeted, “I met Harry Belafonte in 2016 at a festival dedicated to Black human rights in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising. Meeting a man who risked his career and life to embody the archetype of artist as activist left an impression on me I’ll always carry. Rest In Power.”

One of the daughters of Martin Luther King, Bernice King, tweeted, “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. Here he is mourning with my mother at the funeral service for my father at Morehouse College. I won’t forget…Rest well, sir.”

Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump tweeted, “Harry Belafonte — a tireless activist, EGOT winner, and successful singer — has died at 96. Through his extraordinary contributions, including his notable advocacy for human rights and social justice, he leaves an indelible mark on this world. Rest In Power, Mr. Belafonte.”

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted a quote by Belafonte that said, “I was an activist who became an artist, I was not an artist who became an activist.”

FILE – Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte from the documentary film “Sing Your Song,” poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 21, 2011. Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home. He was 96. (AP Photo/Victoria Will, file)