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Harry Belafonte, singer, actor and civil rights activist, dies at 96


Singer, actor, and human rights activist Harry Belafonte died at his home in NY at the age of 96 of congestive heart failure with his wife Pamela by his side.

During his career, Belafonte was credited with breaking racial barriers as he balanced his activism with his artistry in ways that made people around the world listen.  The civil rights and entertainment giant began as a groundbreaking actor and singer and became an activist, humanitarian and conscience of the world. With his distinctive good looks, silky-husky voice, and shirt unbuttoned to his chest, audiences — Black and white — adored Belafonte at a time when segregation ruled most of America. Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to gain a wide following on film and to sell a million records as a singer.

Displaying style, class, and charisma throughout his famed career, the EGOT holder was truly one of a kind, having earned an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. 

In the 1950s, a craze for calypso music erupted following Belafonte’s iconic version of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” (also known as “The Banana Boat Song”).

Born in Harlem to Caribbean parents, Belafonte’s mother was Jamaican and his father was from the island of Martinique. His mother often took him back to her native Jamaica, where he absorbed the island’s culture. It was the street vendors who Belafonte says inspired him when he recorded  “The Banana Boat Song”. His album Calypso was a bestseller, holding a spot at the top of Billboard’s then newly created album charts for several weeks in 1956.

In his early years, Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. After serving in World War II, he returned home and was working as a janitor’s assistant when someone gave him tickets to a performance at the American Negro Theatre. This changed his life and led him down his career path. Alongside the likes of other greats including Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, Belafonte began training. He started singing in clubs and a recording contract soon followed.

A revue called “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac: A Musical Harlequinade” led to a Tony Award in 1954 for Belafonte. He also starred in movies and appeared on TV variety shows. In 1959, he was given a one-hour show on CBS. Called The Revlon Revue: Tonight With Belafonte, the program had dance numbers, folk songs, and both Black and white performers, which led to his Emmy Award — the first for an African American. When Revlon asked him for more shows and to make it an all-Black cast because of complaints of integration. Belafonte refused, and left the show. In 1954, he co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in the Otto Preminger-directed musical “Carmen Jones,” a popular breakthrough for an all-Black cast.

When it came to his activism, Belafonte was in the middle of many of the major issues of the civil rights movement as a most trusted friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beleafonte helped organize the Freedom March on Washington in 1963 where Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech and organized other entertainers and celebrities to take part in the March. Belafonte is also credited with raising money to bail out Dr. King when he was held in a Birmingham jail. In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King wrote, “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide-open.” In 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated, Belafonte helped pick out the suit he was buried in, sat next to his widow, Coretta during the funeral, and continued to support King’s family.

Throughout his career, Belafonte received numerous honors for his humanitarian work and the arts. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it was Belafonte who helped organize his first trip to the U.S. .

When Belafonte spoke about his activism he credited his mother. In describing her, he said, “She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed. And one day, she said to me — she was talking about coming back from a day when she couldn’t find work. Fighting back tears, she said, ‘Don’t ever let injustice go by unchallenged.'”

Harry Belafonte is survived by his wife, Pamela Frank; four children; two stepchildren; and eight grandchildren.

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