By Alice Thomas-Tisdale
JA Publisher Emerita
Legendary singer, songwriter, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte succumbed to natural causes April 25, 2023. He was 96. Mississippi is among the states that owe the human rights icon a debt of gratitude for lending not only his voice but his wallet to the cause of freedom, justice, and equality.
Belafonte’s long history in the civil rights movement is well documented, especially in the Magnolia State. During the 1960’s, he served as a confidant to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and raised money for civil rights protests. He also bankrolled and drew attention to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1987, he accepted an appointment as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, thus making him the second American to hold this title. Belafonte continued to devote himself globally to civil and human rights issues, focusing in particular on the United States and Africa.
In 2018, Belafonte wrote: “When I was a child growing up in the 1930s, I lived in a very different America than the one we live in today.
“I was fortunate enough to find success through music and film, but for many who looked like me, the story was not as promising. People of color were deemed less-than-human and were treated as second-class citizens. The America I grew up in was a dream for a few, but a nightmare for many.
“But in working with my dear friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we were able to fight back against the worst impulses of humanity. Through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington, myself and other activists across the country united in a common belief that all are created equal.
“And yet, now, in 2018, we are again bearing witness to the suspicion, the hatred, and the pervasive bigotry rooted in this new administration, that reminds me of what we survived.”
Belafonte was honored many times by such diverse groups as the American Jewish Congress, the NAACP, the City of Hope, Fight for Sight, The Urban League, The National Conference of Black Mayors, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the ACLU, the State Department, the Boy Scouts of America, Hadassah International, and the Peace Corps.
In 2013, he received the 97th Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor. During that auspices ceremony, then president/CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous commented, “Mr. Belafonte has never been afraid to speak his mind, even when it might have put his career in danger. His combination of charisma and courage, artistic talent, and intellectual prowess has made him icon for the ages and a powerful ally for civil and human rights advocates across the globe.”
Since the announcement of his death, confirmations of Belafonte’s life well lived have been nonstop. Among them, Rev. Al Sharpton. “Harry Belafonte was a true mentor and friend. I am heartbroken to hear of his death but inspired by the long, fruitful life he led,” stated Rev. Sharpton. “He realized his platform gave him the ability to affect change. He used it to advance the civil rights movement and get others in his position off the sidelines. I cherished the time he would give me and others to both guide and correct us. He was a culture-changing entertainer, a history-changing activist, and an unmatchable intellectual. Rest in peace and power, Mr. B.”