Harry Belafonte has contributed to Freedom Rides, Civil Rights and Music

Harry Belafonte never boarded a Greyhound bus to protest during the civil rights movement in an attempt to force the US government to do what its laws promised it.

In the early 1960s, Belafonte was already an international star. He introduced the masses to calypso, an Afro-Caribbean style of music, a decade earlier, becoming the first recording artist to sell more than a million copies of an album in a year.

His growing star has also lit movie theaters: he won a Tony Award for his work on Broadway and was the first American Jamaican to win an Emmy. Frank Sinatra even recruited Belafonte to perform at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration gala.

Singer, actor and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte talks about his life and movies at the First Amendment Center in Nashville on August 26, 2000 after receiving the 2000 "Freedom in the cinema" price.

Yet Belafonte built on – if not sacrificed – his early commercial successes in an effort to change the way his people were treated in America.

He recruited famous friends, from Hollywood to Harlem, in the hope of raising funds to support civil rights, forcing the country’s silent majority to take notice and choose sides.

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A responsibility to help others

Often, Belafonte himself financed initiatives.

Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette remembers Belafonte’s role in mobilizing influencers of the time. Among them was Sam Cooke, who later wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of the many inspirational hymns of the time.

“Once they started to identify with the movement and started raising money to help the Freedom Riders, that’s what made the difference,” said Lafayette, who later became a leader of the Selma voting rights movement and other civil rights campaigns.

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Belafonte, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidants, financially supported Freedom Rides, a dangerous undertaking for participants, as well as an expensive campaign, ranging from bail money and travel costs to bills. hospital. This marked the early years of Belafonte using his success as “King of the Calypso” to support the movement.

Musician and actor Harry Belafonte, left, Freedom Rider Diane Nash and Freedom Rider Charles Jones discussing the Freedom Riders movement, July 14, 1961.

“Ever since he entered the entertainment world and introduced Americans to calypso music … Belafonte always seemed to believe that his role as an artist also came with the responsibility of using this form. to help others, ”said Marquita Reed-Wright, collections manager at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

During this time, Belafonte traveled back and forth between two worlds, as few blacks in his time did, helping one understand the other. This included building a relationship with the Kennedy administration, said retired professor Raymond Arsenault, a historian who has spent the past 41 years at the University of South Florida.

“He knew a lot of people, especially in the music industry,” Arsenault said, “and so he became the hub of a movement that was in desperate need of money to keep going.”

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Music as an instrument of change

Music has always been an expression of human emotion, with a strong connection to civil rights in America.

African slaves used songs to describe their moonlit journeys to freedom, hymns such as “Wade in the Water” and “Steal Away”, which their authors have lost in history. During the Harlem Renaissance, artists such as Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday voiced the state of the world in “I Too Sing American” and “Strange Fruit”.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Belafonte, influenced by the greats before him, giants like Paul Roberson and Holiday, attempted to convince artists to express what they experienced and felt. This effort led to classics such as Cooke’s biggest hit and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”.

The path that Belafonte and others have created has continued over decades, from 1970s James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley to “We Are the World”, a collection of the 45 biggest names in American music of the 1980s with the goal of ending famine in Africa. The 1990s saw Public Enemy, NWA, and 2Pac expose inequalities in black communities through harsh beats and harsher lyrics.

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Arsenault said Belafonte’s role as a financial recruiter for the movement began in 1956, on the first anniversary of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. At the time, the world was presented to Martin Luther King Jr.

“There was at the time a New York group called In Friendship that was trying to raise money for the civil rights movement in the South,” said Arsenault, whose book, “Freedom Riders,” was largely the result of his interviews with more than 200 Freedom Riders between 1998 and 2000.

“This is where Harry Belafonte really started his activism. He headlined a fundraising concert in New York in December 1956, and later became friends with the Kennedy family. after (the) elections of 1960. “

Belafonte’s rise to stardom was not about gaining fame and wealth; it was about sending a message and setting a precedent for how black musicians should be treated.

As he gained popularity, his charm and intense passion for activism began to change the way black performers were viewed by the public.

In a May 1968 interview with the Kansas City Star, Belafonte noted that an artist is not one-dimensional.

“I am fighting (for civil rights) because I believe it can be changed. I am fighting because I believe it should be changed,” he said.

About this series

Sixty years ago, the first Freedom Riders set out on their journey across the South to challenge separate buses, bus stations, lunch bars, and other facilities associated with interstate travel. These activists would be confronted, often violently, with police and crowds of white citizens, drawing international attention to social inequalities in what has become a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. This year, the USA TODAY Network examines the legacy of these pioneers and how it informs our present moment.


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