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Lena Horne — civil rights pioneer on & off the screen

Published May 20, 2010 9:10 PM

Just days before the great Lena Horne passed away on May 9 at the age of 92, I was watching one of my all-time favorite movie musicals, “Stormy Weather.” The groundbreaking 1943 movie featured an incredibly talented all-Black cast that included Horne, then a 26-year-old singer, and the legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Also in the cast were Cab Calloway and his orchestra, the Nicholas Brothers and the Katherine Dunham dance troupe.

Lena Horne singing
“Stormy Weather,”
her signature song in
1943 movie.

Notwithstanding the degrading, stereotypical characters that African-American actors, male and female, were forced to play in this movie and countless others put out by Hollywood, especially during the 1930s and 1940s, Horne consistently refused to be straightjacketed in such roles.

In fact, due to her extraordinary talent, stunning good looks, perseverance and defiance, Horne became the first Black actor to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio: seven years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During the mid-1940s, she became the highest-paid Black performer in the U.S.

Before she made history, Horne started her show business career as a singer at the Cotton Club in Harlem at the age of 16. The club’s white management practiced a racist policy of hiring Black female dancers — mainly light-skinned — to perform in scanty clothing for whites-only customers. At the club, Horne sang with the great jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington and his orchestra. She then made her Broadway debut in 1934.

At 1963 March on Washington.

Before her breakthrough major role in “Stormy Weather,” Horne could get only nonspeaking, singing roles in musicals. She was viewed by Vogue Magazine as “Hollywood’s first black beauty, sex symbol, singing star.”

In her 1965 autobiography “Lena,” she remarked on how Hollywood treated her: “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me into anything else either. I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland.

“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.” (Los Angeles Times, May 10)

A monumental travesty that Hollywood committed was when, in 1950, MGM did not even offer Horne the role of Julie, a “mulatto” character, in the movie musical “Show Boat.” The role went to white actor Ava Gardner, who used brownish make-up. In an earlier anthology film, “As the Clouds Roll By,” Horne had been allowed to perform a song as Julie.

Surviving McCarthyism; standing up for civil rights

In the early 1940s, Horne became good friends with actor-singer and political activist Paul Robeson and with Black leftist historian W.E.B. Du Bois. As a result of her friendship with them, along with other progressives such as Gene Kelly, Horne became involved in progressive organizations like the Council for African Affairs and the Hollywood Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. These organizations and others were dubbed “Communist fronts” by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the anti-Communist witch-hunt era.

Horne was “blacklisted,” like countless other entertainers, and labeled as a Communist sympathizer by the McCarthyites. For seven years, she was unable to find work in the movies or on television. Instead, she sang in nightclubs and concert halls. She also made records and albums.

Horne took numerous individual stances against racist discrimination. During a USO show in 1945 at an Army base at Fort Reilly, Kan., she refused to sing before a segregated audience when African-American GIs were forced to sit behind German prisoners of war.

Lena Horne performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world. Her fame, however, did not prevent her from being confronted with racism in the U.S., whether in the North or the South. When she overheard a white man call her a racist epithet in a Los Angeles nightclub, she injured him by throwing an ashtray, a table lamp and drinking glasses at him. Many Black people applauded her response.

When Black performers, including Horne, faced racism from white neighbors in Hollywood, “’Felix Young, a white man, signed for the house as if he was going to rent it,’ Ms. Horne said. ‘When the neighbors found out, Humphrey Bogart, who lived right across the street from me, raised hell with them for passing around a petition to get rid of me.’ Bogart, she said, ‘sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know.’” (New York Times, May 9)

In 1963, Lena Horne participated in the historic March on Washington for civil rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King. She also sang at many civil rights rallies, including one held in the aftermath of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

Lena Horne was admired around the world, not only for her talent but for her integrity and her anti-racist activism. In 1964, Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez cut a five-minute political film called “Now,” a powerful montage of Civil Rights-era photos and news clips set to the moving voice of Horne. (blackleftunity.webs.com/westandwithcuba.htm)

At the age of 80, Horne reflected, “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.” (New York Times, May 9)

From now on, whenever I see “Stormy Weather,” I will continue to feel a greater appreciation for it thanks to the one and only Lena Horne.