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
her signature song in
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
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
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
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
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.
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