In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.
When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.
No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.
And how things happened, even more so.
The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.
And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.
He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.