“Sing Your Song”: Remembering Harry Belafonte, Who Used His Stardom to Help MLK & Civil Rights Movement
Written by GRB on 27/04/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Today we spend the hour remembering the remarkable life of Harry Belafonte. The pioneering actor, singer, civil rights activist died at his home on Tuesday in New York at the age of 96 from congestive heart failure. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Belafonte grew up in Harlem and Jamaica. In the 1950s, he spearheaded the calypso craze, became the first artist in recording history with a million-selling album. He was also the first African American actor to win an Emmy.
Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Belafonte became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest confidants, he sent money to bail King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, supported voter registration drives and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Harry Belafonte remained deeply involved in political struggles at home and abroad. A longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, he called for an end to the embargo against Cuba, opposed policies of war and global oppression. After years of supporting the anti-apartheid movement, Belafonte hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States after his release from prison in South Africa. Harry Belafonte also spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and once called President George W. Bush the, quote, “greatest terrorist in the world.”
Harry Belafonte appeared on Democracy Now! numerous times. In 2011, I spoke to him at the Sundance Film Festival, where a documentary about his life, titled Sing Your Song, premiered. The film was co-produced by Harry Belafonte’s daughter Gina. This is a part of the film’s trailer.
ED SULLIVAN: Here’s one of the greatest artists of the world, Harry Belafonte!
HARRY BELAFONTE: [singing] Day-o, day-o
Daylight come and we want go home
Day, is a day, is a day, is a day…
HARRY BELAFONTE: One day, Paul Robeson came to see me and simply said, “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.”
HARRY BELAFONTE: [singing] Coconut woman is calling out
Every day you will hear her shout…
JULIAN BOND: Even in that grainy, black-and-white early TV, his personality came out.
GEORGE SCHLATTER: When Harry Belafonte went on the show with Petula Clark, they touched.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: People were like, “Oh my god!”
HARRY BELAFONTE: Whatever you’re capable of doing as artists to help propagandize the civil rights revolution.
SIDNEY POITIER: Out of that came the true artistry of Harry Belafonte.
HARRY BELAFONTE: There’s a lot of people out here who are really pissed off.
DIAHANN CARROLL: Harry gave us a piece of his fire. It gave us all strength.
HARRY BELAFONTE: We are angry. We’re upset.
CORETTA SCOTT KING: Harry motivated Martin, because here’s a man who didn’t have to get involved and who did.
HARRY BELAFONTE: We look around for some comfort, and we don’t find any.
BO TAYLOR: I remember once when you said, “From the time I get up and the time I go to sleep, I seek out the injustices done to humankind.”
HARRY BELAFONTE: What do we want?
HARRY BELAFONTE: When do we want it?
QUINCY JONES: He was always like that. He was always, “Let’s do something.”
JULIAN BOND: Harry did this over and over and over and over again.
MIRIAM MAKEBA: He took all our struggles and made them his own.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the documentary Sing Your Song about the life of Harry Belafonte, who’s died at the age of 96. The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where I interviewed Harry. I asked him to talk about his first memories of being politically active.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I’m not quite sure precisely when social and political activism became a visible brand of my DNA, but it seems to me that I was born into it. It is hard to be born into the experience in the world of poverty and not develop some instinct for survival and resistance to those things that oppress you. My mother was a feisty lady. Although she had never gotten into a place of formal education, she came here and had to learn skills, became a seamstress. She became an expert cook. She worked at odds and ends in jobs. She never resisted the opportunity to fight oppression, especially segregation and all the things that plagued people who were immigrants. In her resistance, she counseled us constantly.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, professionally, you started more acting before you really professionally singing, is that right?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Well, acting was the complete key, was the main key to my getting involved. In this play that we did of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the director had created a character in the play who would become the balladeer. He would be a force. The director moved throughout the play to — in the changing of sets, changing of cues, lighting cues, changing of mood. And this character would emerge from the darkness of the corners of the stage and sing the songs of the day, for those migrant workers coming from Southwest America. And most of the songs that I had to sing were the songs that had been written by Huddie Ledbetter and by Woody Guthrie. As a matter of fact, I opened the play with a Woody Guthrie song.
Anyway, let me jump to the quick of this. It was approaching the material as an actor, because the director spent a lot of time on what the balladeer would do, how he would positioned and — how he would be positioned, what the intensity of the moment of singing the song would mean to the development of the play or the scene. And in that context, I approached music as a tool that was really about social information. It wasn’t just harmony and chords and notes and melody, all that was obvious. But it was the content and the power of song. And having been heard in that play in that context, I was offered a job to become a singer. And since I couldn’t find other work, being a singer was a good challenge. So I put a repertoire together, walked into a night club called the Royal Roost, met guys like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Max Roach.
AMY GOODMAN: They were your backup band?
HARRY BELAFONTE: My first backup band were those guys. And they just launched me into a world from which I have never looked back.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the incredible stories told in Sing Your Song is your traveling through the South and trying to sing your song. Talk about that experience.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Paul Robeson, who was a mentor and a man for whom I had enormous love and admiration, was the supreme example for me of how to use your life with dignity and with courage — not bravado, but genuine social courage, to put all that’s on the line to come up against the forces of oppression, who controlled so much of what you could or could not do as an artist. And to defy that fact and go after the larger goal of changing the faces of oppression inspired me. And he went everywhere there was the opportunity to be heard, whether it was going into Spain to sing during the great Spanish revolutionary war in ’30s, whether it was going to England. He went and he worked with the Welsh miners. As a matter of fact, his whole engagement, politically, had been stimulated by what happened when he met the Welsh miners. And he sang with them, and he went into their world.
Well, when I watched what he did and how many places he went for inspiration, and mostly places where there was oppression, I felt those were the places in which I would be most nourished and what I should be doing with my own art and with my own platform. And certainly going into the South of the United States, listening to the voices of rural Black America, listening to the voices of those who sang out against the Ku Klux Klan and out against segregation, and women, who were the most oppressed of all, coming rising to the occasion to protest against their conditions, became the arena where my first songs were to emerge. And in that context, going in the South was for me not to exploit commercially — that didn’t come until later — but to find the resources to nourish my own creativity.
AMY GOODMAN: So there you were, the star on the stage, but you couldn’t go in the front door. Describe that experience.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When I went to the South on a professional basis, I had already arrived at a place where there was some visibility. I was going with artists who were quite well known — Marge and Gower Champion, a play called Three for Tonight. Many of the places we booked throughout the universities of America, a lot of the places we went were to the universities in the South, like Chapel Hill and the University of Texas. And in going to those places, we thought we were going not so much for the commercial reward of it — that was how we made our living — but to get to young people and to get our works before them.
And in the places that we went, some of the auditoriums were public institutions. And when I got to some of these places not only did they not want to let me in the theater, they didn’t want to let me in the places in which we were booked to stay overnight. There were many instances where, by law, no Black person could stay in this hotel, or by law, no Black person could be sitting at a table with a white member of the cast — I mean, white woman member of the cast — and not be sitting in the threat of incarceration and the law coming down on you, because these were then tenets of the law. This wasn’t just something that was capricious; it was written. It was the legislation of the state. And we had to come up against that. And the battle was consistent. And even in the North, places like the Waldorf Astoria and the Palmer House in Chicago and these mighty institutions of culture did have strict race laws. And in accepting employment to go in these places, rigidly placed in my contract was the requirement that those laws and those rules be suspended and not be evoked during the time of my appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, when did you first meet Dr. Martin Luther King?
HARRY BELAFONTE: It was right after Birmingham — I’m sorry, Montgomery, right after the Montgomery bus boycott had taken hold, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott Association — the Montgomery Improvement Association. And we had all heard about this young minister, and certainly we all heard of Rosa Parks. And I got a call, and before the strike had been settled even. They had not expected it to run so long.
AMY GOODMAN: So this was in 1956?
HARRY BELAFONTE: 1956. Dr. King called, and he was coming to New York to speak at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. There was — at that time, the head pastor was Adam Clayton Powell, who was in our Congress. And he was going to give a lecture to people from the ecumenical community. And he said, “I’m coming to New York, and I’d love to have an opportunity to meet you. And I’d like to give you an idea of what it is that I do.” And I was absolutely fascinated that he called, and I wanted very much to meet him.
So I went up to the church to hear him speak. And at the end of his lecture, he would retire to the basement. And for what he said would just be a few minutes, almost at the end of four hours, we exchanged thoughts, feelings and passions. And at the end of that meeting, I knew that I would be in his service and focus on the cause of the desegregation movement, the right to vote, and all that he stood for. Although we understood how perilous the journey would be, we were not quite prepared for all that we had to confront. And I think that it was the most important time in my life.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip from Sing Your Song of Dr. Martin Luther King.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Dr. King, do you fear for your life?
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I’m more concerned about doing a good job, doing something for humanity and what I consider the will of God, than about longevity. Ultimately, it isn’t so important how long you live. The important thing is how well you live.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t. All of a sudden, our worst fears were being awakened. I really did not give myself much time to be preoccupied with any personal deep sense of loss.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Martin Luther King, and that clip is from the film about Harry Belafonte’s life, about the history of the 20th century and coming into the 21st, called Sing Your Song. Harry, that relationship you had with Dr. King that went on for more than a decade, until his assassination, how often did you speak?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I would say, easily, we spoke every day. Obviously, we missed some days or some weekends, but the line was constantly filled with thoughts and ideas and challenge and up-to-date decisions that were being made by a team of people that were always brought together when there was the moment to escalate what we were doing or to be cautious about where we were going.
And also we were trying to broaden the base of our political relationships. So much of what our mission was doing was very dependent on our relationship with the federal government, with the institutions of justice, because our plea was on a constitutional basis: the Constitution of the United States of America is being grossly violated by all the things that Black people are experiencing. And if you don’t have the instruments of government and the federal government on your side, including the courts, then you really can’t do very much, because all the laws that bound us to such cruel experience were state laws, and there was no way to appeal the injustice within the state structure. So we had to find ways in which to broaden our campaign to include a national movement and it becoming a national movement to entice federal intervention.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know how many of those hundreds of conversations were recorded by the FBI?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think my safest bet would be all of them. I don’t know when it would have started, but —
AMY GOODMAN: Have you gotten transcripts of those conversations?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, I’ve gotten transcripts. I’ve gotten some stuff from the Freedom of Information Act. What’s very important is the fact that in the first 10 years of pursuing to get those files, I have letters that come from both the CIA and the FBI assuring me, “With all honesty and with having done all due diligence and deep research, such documents don’t exist. There are none.” And eventually we had other sources that came through other ways in which they began to look through files and saw my name and situations —
AMY GOODMAN: Like Taylor Branch, the historian.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Taylor Branch, the historian, he was most revealing in what he had done with the research. But also journalists and other people who were digging to get stories on other subjects came across those files and informed us. And then, finally, the FBI capitulated. And the first documents they sent, about hundreds of pages, 99% of those pages were just one big black stroke. So the insult against intelligence to send those kinds of files to a citizen whose rights were being violated was an insult to not only intelligence, but a crushing of the rights to information and to living in a society that is more open and transparent.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the march from Selma to Montgomery and who you brought down, and the fear at that time, and how these artists were also a kind of protection, the frontlines, if you will, to protect the people who were at great risk whose names were not famous.
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think all the artists who did this understood that, understood that there was the threat to life and that some irrational person somewhere or some irrational group somewhere would find it very adventurous to mark them as one of the targets. There’d be a lot of heroism coming from the clan of these retarded people, emotionally and socially, to say they killed a celebrity, which in fact became in vogue not so shortly after this period. Look what they did to John Kennedy and to so many others, Dr. King, and etc. But these artists understood that. It wasn’t — they were not blinded by it. They weren’t blind to it, I should say. And by putting themselves on the line, it heightened public curiosity. And in heightening public curiosity, it meant that things were forced to be more transparent. And they weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves that way — I’m talking about the opposition.
Except it’s important to note that at the very night of our concert, the night thereafter, was when Mrs. Liuzzo was murdered, and as a matter of fact, in the car in which she had taken one of the members of our group to the airport. She was on her way back. Tony Bennett gave up his seat in that ride.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Bennett was there, singing.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yeah, he was there. And he gave up his seat to someone else, to Mrs. Liuzzo and the young man that was with her.
AMY GOODMAN: She was a white woman who wanted to support the struggle, the civil rights struggle —
HARRY BELAFONTE: She was the wife of —
AMY GOODMAN: — by driving people?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. She was a member of the Automobile Workers Union, and she volunteered to come down and was one of the organizers. And she drove cars to give people facility back and forth to the different places in which artists had to reside. And in doing that service, on her way back from the airport, she fell a target to murderers who killed her. That was to have been Tony Bennett’s car.
It was also important, I think, because the kind of artists that came down didn’t have a platform on which they were going to be very visible. Singers could always be heard, but — Leonard Bernstein came down. And when he and I spoke, Leonard said, “I don’t sing. There will be no orchestra to conduct. But morally I feel an obligation to let my presence be seen and to let people draw whatever strength from that they might be able to garnish, to know that their struggle has touched all of us.” So there were many who people don’t even know about.
AMY GOODMAN: You also helped fund Freedom Summer.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that, putting your finances behind the struggle. I mean, you now — what, in ’55 or before, had the first gold record, Calypso, gold, million-selling record, first one in this country. Some had singles, but you had the record.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yeah, it was the first album to achieve the sales of a million. And beyond all of the hoopla that came with that fact from the commercial end stood the studio and the record company. What was very prophetic about that moment for me was that it became symbolic of an instruction that Paul Robeson had given me. And he said, “Get them to sing your song, and they’ll want to know who you are.” And in that little exchange down in the dressing room of the Village Vanguard, I woke up not too long after that wonderful piece of counsel to understand what he meant, because that album housed the song “Banana Boat (Day-O).” And the whole world was singing the song, in a literal sense. But also, when I looked at the thousands of people that came to the stadiums to hear that song and others, I realized that the world was singing my song. And in Robeson’s counsel, this was the opportunity to begin to spread truth and to open up opportunities for information to flow.
It was the opportunity to reach out to other artists, who may not have been heard otherwise or needed or be heard, like Miriam Makeba. America knew nothing about the struggles of the people in Africa. Miriam Makeba came; she got the platform. Ed Sullivan was convinced that, in his world, to let Miriam Makeba come on the program and to sing in Xhosa — and for him it was an adventure, and he had been told by the programmers that they’re not going to understand. And he said, “Oh, they’ll understand. Harry likes it, it’s good enough for me.” And he got on the air, and there was Miriam Makeba singing these songs, and her popularity became quite intense.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was very important for the anti-apartheid struggle —
HARRY BELAFONTE: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: — spreading into the United States.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Absolutely. Not only the anti-apartheid struggle, which spread in the United States, but for a greater understanding of the liberation of the whole continent, because there was people like Sékou Touré and Nyerere and Tom Mboya, and all of the entire continent was awakened with the idea of liberation. Having African artists, eventually Hugh Masekela and others, the whole idea of world music was seeded in the fact that the banana boat songs from the Caribbean — it opened up more music from Cuba and the whole power in Afro-Cuban jazz and what those great Cuban artists did, who pollinated American jazz with such great harmonies in song. All of that stuff was a melting pot for a greater truth.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte speaking in 2011 on Democracy Now! He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at the age of 96 here in New York. To see the rest of that interview and all of our interviews with Harry, go to democracynow.org. We’ll hear more from Harry Belafonte in his own words when we come back.
AMY GOODMAN: “Show Me the Way, My Brother” by Harry Belafonte, from the Grammy-winning album he made with the South African singer Miriam Makeba.