The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Sidney Poitier Challenged U.S. Racism

Jan 17, 2022

Actor and director Sidney Poitier died this January, after a long career in Hollywood. He won the Oscar for best actor in 1963, the first black man to do so and one of only four black actors to win up to the present. Poitier found ways to challenge the racism against black people in the movie industry and in U.S. society in general.

Poitier was born on an island in what later became the Bahamas, then a colony of Britain. The island had no electricity and no running water. His father was a tomato farmer, ruined by Florida tomato growers so that the crop from the Bahamas could not compete with theirs. His formal education was only a year or so.

He did not understand about U.S. race relations, but learned quickly in his first job in Florida at age 15. The Ku Klux Klan visited his brother’s home to threaten the family because Sidney, as a bicycle messenger, had delivered a package to the front door of a white person’s home, not to the back door.

He learned that black people were expected to have only a few jobs in the U.S., which offended him. When he finally got to Hollywood in the early 1960s, black actors were allowed very limited roles. They were stereotyped as poor people working as laborers or servants, like Hattie McDaniel had been in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” From the start, Poitier had no illusions about Hollywood’s attitudes toward black people. As he said in a 2000 interview, "Hollywood never really had much of a conscience … it was always only a handful of men…. This town never was infected by that kind of goodness."

Poitier got his Oscar for best actor in 1963, as part of what was going on in the streets—the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Poitier had met Harry Belafonte at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem in the 1950s. Poitier only got to study acting there because he pushed to work as a janitor, to follow up his fascination with acting.

It was Belafonte who made it a point to use his position as a prominent black singer to raise funds for the civil rights movement in general and the Southern Black Leadership Conference and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular. Poitier, like other prominent black artists, was a donor.

In 1964, for the summer involving the Freedom Rides, Belafonte asked Poitier to accompany him to deliver cash for the movement to Jackson, Mississippi. They found themselves in a car chase with gun-waving white men they assumed were KKK supporters. They survived to continue to push against racism, especially for black artists.

When the black actor Denzel Washington accepted an Oscar in 2002, he thanked Sidney Poitier for "opening up doors for all of us that had been closed for many years."