The anti-racist legacy of Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett, who died peacefully at the age of 96 on July 21, was not only one of the most influential singers of the 20th century, but a conscientious supporter of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In his 1998 autobiography, “The Good Life,” Bennett spoke on how his friendship with a Black soldier while they served in the army during World War II was condemned by racist white officers. Bennett stated that he opposed all wars following this experience.  In fact, Bennett refused to sing the national anthem because of its violent lyrics.

Bennett expressed outrage over the racist treatment of great jazz artists like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Bennett wrote, “Nat and Duke were geniuses, brilliant human beings who gave the world some of the most beautiful music it’s ever heard, and yet they were treated like second-class citizens. The whole situation enraged me.”

Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett at UNICEF benefit in 2012.

Having heard about Bennett’s public stance against racism, the late, great Harry Belafonte – who also died at age 96 in April – asked Bennett to join other prominent entertainers in the 19-day Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. This historic march eventually led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act that same year.  

Bennett did not hesitate to say yes to Belafonte’s request. He compared this situation to the one he had when he was a soldier: “When the march started, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. It felt the same way down in Selma: the white state troopers were really hostile, and they were not shy about showing it. There was the threat of violence all along the march route, from Montgomery to Selma, some of which was broadcast on the nightly news and really helped to make the country aware of the ugliness that was still going on in the South.”

Along the 54-mile route, Bennett, along with other entertainers like Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and Rita Moreno, would perform for the marchers on a nightly basis.  

How ironic it was that following the culmination of the march and rally, Bennett was driven to the Montgomery airport by Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white supporter from Detroit, on March 25, 1965. Liuzzo was fatally shot by the KKK that same night, becoming one of the many martyrs of the movement.  

On his experience in the South, Bennett commented in his book, “I’m enormously proud that I was able to take part in such a historic event but I’m saddened to think that it was ever necessary and that any person should suffer simply because of the color of his skin.” 

An anti-apartheid activist

Harry Belafonte, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tony Bennett, March 1968.

Bennett joined the artistic boycott against apartheid South Africa during the 1980s and performed for Nelson Mandela in England following his release from prison.

The widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, remarked on Bennett’s contributions after bestowing the Salute to Greatness award on him in 2002, saying, “Tony is not only one of America’s premier performing artists, but he was a deeply committed friend and supporter of my husband and the Civil Rights Movement.” (NBC News, July 21, 2023)

In 2007, Bennett was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, a promenade at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, which also includes the late actor Sidney Poitier.  

Frank Sinatra referred to Tony Bennett as “the best singer in the business.” Considering the source, this is certainly high praise. But besides him being a legendary performer, more importantly, Bennett’s legacy should be that he was a socially conscious person who strongly spoke out against the injustice suffered by the great Black artists that he worked with and so admired. He wanted an end to racism and war for all humanity. Rest in power, Tony Bennett! 

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