Of all the contributions for which Harry Belafonte will be remembered, perhaps none is more enduring than the celebrated entertainer’s lifelong support for youth activism.
This support can be traced back to Belafonte’s early involvement in the Black student-led protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, but it didn’t end there. Using his social stature and personal wealth from a career that once made him the “most highly paid Black performer in history,” Belafonte also helped establish hip-hop as a dominant cultural force in the 1980s and spoke out in support of Black uprisings against police brutality in the 2010s in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.
As a historian who has examined Black student activism from the civil rights era to today, I see Belafonte, who passed away on April 25, 2023, as one of America’s preeminent “race men,” social justice warriors and elder statesmen for youth-led racial justice movements.
Born in a new Black era
Born in Harlem in 1927, Belafonte was immersed in the politics and art of the New Negro Era, an era that gave birth to radically new interpretations of the Black aesthetic and launched new efforts toward Black liberation.
As the modern Civil Rights Movement unfolded in post-World War II America, Belafonte joined the ranks of Black entertainers who sought to use their platforms to advance the cause. But it was the direct-action phase of the movement, pioneered by Black college students throughout the South at the start of the 1960s, that elevated the movement to a more intense confrontation with Jim Crow America.
Sit-ins, Freedom Rides and jail-ins orchestrated by organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – or SNCC – and the Congress of Racial Equality brought Belafonte deeper into the orbit of the freedom struggle. Belafonte once said he admired the young activists for the “power of their independence.”
A unifying force
One of the tensest moments for the young activists was the Freedom Rides that brought waves of young Black college students into the Deep South to challenge the legality of segregation in interstate busing. Many of them ended up as victims of police brutality in the infamous Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Not only did Belafonte make a generous donation to their cause, but his willingness to support the activists strengthened their admiration of him.
“Folks were just overwhelmed,” recalled civil rights organizer Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, “and I believe that marked the beginning of Bro. Belafonte’s long relationship – as adviser, benefactor, and big brother – to the young freedom-fighting organization.”
As students courageously languished in Mississippi’s sweltering prison, they converted Belafonte’s signature song into a freedom anthem. The calypso singer’s hit single “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” echoed through Southern jails as students arrested for challenging Jim Crow laws repurposed the song with new lyrics:
Hey, I took a little trip on a Greyhound bus.
Freedom comin’ and it won’t be long.
Well, to fight segregation this we must.
Yeah, Freedom comin’ and it won’t be long.
Financed the SNCC retreat to Africa
The apex of Belafonte’s involvement with the SNCC was his facilitation of a sojourn to the West African nation of Guinea in September of 1964.
Sensing the burnout and frustration that was brewing within the organization due to its growing dissatisfaction with moderation and stall tactics from both the liberal left and conservative right, Belafonte organized and paid for a three-week sabbatical. Eleven SNCC activists, including John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael, made the trip. Belafonte introduced them to Guinea’s political dignitaries, including President Sekou Toure. The trip proved critical in sharpening the SNCC’s focus on the potential for Black empowerment back in the States – a revelation that would greatly shape the coming Black Power Movement that unfolded in 1966.
Ideological tensions concerning the direction of the Civil Rights Movement after 1965 pushed Belafonte closer to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
However, the politically conscious showman never turned his back on the youth activists who helped to define the decade.
Supported hip-hop in its early years
It should not surprise anyone that a man who had a deep affinity for folk music and songs of the people gravitated toward hip-hop as it emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.
Belafonte saw hip-hop as a logical next step in the evolution of Black cultural expression and a vital space for Black militancy. In a 2006 interview, he declared, “When I hung out up in the South Bronx with Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel, and watched the dawning of the hip-hop culture, it brought to me a profound sense of a wonderful thing that was in our future.”
Belafonte produced the 1984 film “Beat Street,” a celebration of hip-hop that was critical in introducing the art form to wider audiences. One of the featured artists, Melle Mel of the pioneering hip-hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, recalled that he met with Belafonte prior to penning his verse on the soundtrack’s title song, “Beat Street Breakdown. His lyrics reflected his exchange with the civil rights legend:
Peoples in terror, the leaders made a error
And now they can’t even look in the mirror
Cause we gotta suffer while things get rougher
And that’s the reason why we got to get tougher
Belafonte intensified his backing of hip-hop in later years, whether it was encouraging Fidel Castro to carve out support for Cuban rappers in the 1990s, or through various hip-hop summits that he hosted in an effort to prod and push hip-hop’s most prominent entertainers to be more outspoken on issues related to social justice.
Mentored young activists
In his twilight years, Belafonte continued to mentor youth activists. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2013, Belafonte visited Tallahassee, Florida, to support the work of the Dream Defenders, an organization founded by former students from Florida A&M University to, among other things, draw attention to the injustice of the Stand Your Ground law that was used to justify Martin’s fatal shooting.
Standing with the students in solidarity, Belafonte told them: “I’m here because I am a part of your history. You called, and I’m here to tell you that those of us who have been in this struggle for over a century are happy to be part of this moment.”
Embraced Black Lives Matter
Belafonte’s tireless devotion to human rights perfectly dovetailed into support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s, as he continued to argue for disruption of political systems that upheld state-sanctioned violence.
Belafonte’s defiance and support for the movement was unwavering. “Radical thought at its best is supposed to make people feel uncomfortable,” Belafonte declared in 2015. “We talk about the uprisings in communities like in St. Louis and Baltimore, and it is what protests are supposed to do.”
From the 1960s until Belafonte’s passing, young people across several generations sought him out for wisdom and guidance. His enduring commitment to youth and idealism always made him easy to find.