Harry Belafonte was more than a Civil Rights activist but a genuine internationalist

The great Jamaican-identified artist, Civil Rights activist and internationalist, Harry Belafonte, died from congestive heart failure at age 96 on April 25, 2023.

Despite becoming the first Black person to win a TV Emmy award in 1960, a Broadway Tony award in 1954 and selling millions of recordings, Belafonte experienced racist discrimination firsthand, like most Black entertainers in the 1950s and 1960s, including his good friend, the late actor Sidney Poitier. Belafonte was an important political organizer and financial backer of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

Belafonte was inspired personally and politically by the great singer and radical actor, Paul Robeson, who was a victim of the anti-communist, McCarthyite witch hunt that all but destroyed his livelihood. 

In a speech before the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade/Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives meeting in New York City on April 27, 1997, Belafonte, a survivor of the witch hunt, stated, “And it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment.

“Paul said to me, ‘Harry, get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are. And if they want to know who you are, you’ve gained the first step in bringing truth and bringing insight that might help people get through this rather difficult world.’”

Belafonte ended his speech this way: “Thank you — and long live the Brigade and what it stands for — and long live each and every one of you — and give up smoking! Fidel Castro gave it up, you can give it up!” (University of Chicago

Belafonte also supported a just trial for the revolutionary journalist and African American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Going beyond Civil Rights 

Belafonte was an important U.S. spokesperson for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. 

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Harry Belafonte, Jan. 2009. PHOTO: Alliance for Global Justice

Belafonte supported left-wing progressive causes that upset the racist, white status quo; this includes being an outspoken opponent of imperialist war. In January 2006, Belafonte led a delegation, which included actor Danny Glover, farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta and professor Cornel West, to Caracas, Venezuela, to meet with the late President Hugo Chávez. 

Belafonte told Chávez during a TV and radio broadcast: “No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution. . . .  We respect you, admire you, and we are expressing our full solidarity with the Venezuelan people and your revolution.” (jamaicaobserver.com. Jan. 9, 2006) 

Ally of the Cuban Revolution

Belafonte supported the Cuban Revolution and became a good friend of Fidel Castro. The excerpted article below, “Our friend Belafonte, on his 95th birthday,” first appeared on the website of “Granma,” the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Central Committee, on March 7, 2022. To read the entire article, go to tinyurl.com/4bddhhvr.   Harry Belafonte: Rest in power! 

By Pedro de la Hoz

Belafonte was awarded our country’s Friendship Medal by the Council of State in 2020, and continues to be a source of inspiration for many who appreciate him as an exceptional artist and extraordinary human being. 

When on July 23, 2020, Harry Belafonte held in his hands the Friendship Medal, awarded by the Cuban state, surely passing through his mind, like a good movie, was an unforgettable sequence of the many moments during his life when he shared the same luck, convictions and destiny of inhabitants of our island.

On that day, then Cuban ambassador in Washington José R. Cabañas stated:, “This distinction serves as recognition of your lifelong solidarity with Cuba, your respect and admiration for the Cuban revolutionary process.” 

On the 95th birthday of the U.S. actor, musician and social activist — born March 1, 1927, in New York — Belafonte continues to be a source of inspiration for many of his compatriots and for those of us who appreciate him as an exceptional artist, extraordinary human being and dear friend.

One name cannot be overlooked in describing the development of such a special bond: Fidel Castro. The historic leader of the revolution and the actor and singer, a companion of Martin Luther King in the struggle, cultivated a very close relationship, after Belafonte reencountered Cuba in 1979, subsequently never foregoing his trips to Havana, as long as his health allowed.

Belafonte got to know the city in the 1950s, not without first exchanging words and experiences with many Cubans living in New York, and feeling an affinity for the music of the neighboring country, especially after listening to Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

In those same years, more than because of his films, the song “Matilda, Matilda” penetrated the musical imagination of Cubans at that time, a song that dates back at least to the 1930s, when the calypso pioneer, Trinidad’s King Radio (aka Norman Span) released the song. Belafonte first recorded it in 1953, and it became an immediate hit, further popularized with its inclusion on his second full-length album with RCA Victor in 1955.

In his memoirs, “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance,” published in 2011, its Spanish version still unpublished in Cuba, he wrote: “When I became an artist and began to have some celebrity, I went to Cuba quite regularly, before ’59. I went there with Sammy Davis Jr., and to hear Nat King Cole, and to hang out with Frank Sinatra; the place where we most often gathered was the Hotel Nacional. 

“Everybody was performing there except me. When they came to me — and I had a work contract, when the Habana Riviera Hotel first opened — I was in an interracial marriage, as it was called in those days, and suddenly I became a persona non grata, in Cuba, everywhere.”

Right around that time he filmed Robert Rossen’s film, “Island In The Sun,” in which he played a Black union leader in a fictitious West Indian country who lived a love story with a young white woman from the upper middle class (Joan Fontaine). The film generated controversy when it was released in the United States in 1957, given the fact that racist elites considered its content an irresponsible transgression. 

Harry Belafonte and Cuban President Fidel Castro

After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, Fidel, who, in addition to being an insatiable reader, enjoyed movies to the extent that his political and governmental responsibilities allowed, saw the film and talked about it with Belafonte, along with his wife Julie, and Sidney Poitier, a friend and colleague. For both Fidel and Harry, racism and discrimination based on skin color were inadmissible, abhorrent social and cultural phenomena.

In this regard, Belafonte noted in his memoirs: “Many Cuban exiles say that in Cuba there was no racism before the Revolution, that Cuba was never racist, never like the United States. I think that Cuba, among all the Caribbean islands, all with racist practices, was the most racist . . . 

“So, when I went to Cuba after the revolution, the first thing I noticed was the mixture of people, particularly among young people, there were still residues of the old customs, but certainly among the young, when I went to the university, and when I went to cultural sites, when I went to day care centers, wherever I went in Cuba among the young, I was deeply impressed by the extent of racial integration . . . . I am not suggesting that in Cuba there is no racism, but it is important to know that it is not an official state practice, nor is it institutionalized.”

Precisely the objective and subjective factors that favored the reproduction of racist and discriminatory attitudes in Cuban life, and the struggle to eradicate these as an inalienable part of the Cuban revolutionary project, were the subjects of Belafonte’s conversations with Fidel more than once, and over the last two years, he has followed news of the implementation of our “National Program Against Racism and Racial Discrimination,” an effort inspired by Fidel’s ideas.

As testimony of his unwavering solidarity and sense of justice, it is worth recalling the words with which he introduced a rally held at the Church of Reconciliation in New York on September 27, 2003. On that day he prayed for the five Cuban anti-terrorist heroes serving long prison sentences in the United States. 

He [Belafonte] stated:, “What is happening with our policy toward Cuba is not the American way, it is not the true voice of the American people, it is not the true voice of those of us who believe deeply, profoundly, in the rights of all peoples, and the freedom of all people and in democracy…There is a great deal that the Cuban government, the Cuban people have achieved, that many of us here are still attempting to achieve.”

Belafonte was once asked why he supports the Cuban people, and he stated, “I don’t see it as a supreme effort. It is a way of life: if you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, if you believe in people’s rights, if you believe in the harmony of all humanity.”

Monica Moorehead and a guest author

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Monica Moorehead and a guest author

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