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

Harry Belafonte—Singer, Actor, and Lifelong Outspoken Activist

May 1, 2023

Harry Belafonte, Jr. is dead at the age of 96. Well-known as a singer and actor, Belafonte was also a lifelong outspoken political activist.

Belafonte was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants. For most of his childhood he was raised solely by his mother who struggled with poverty. He also lived for part of his childhood with his grandmother in Jamaica, where he experienced the treatment of black Jamaicans by British authorities.

Belafonte dropped out of high school and joined the Navy in 1944. While there, he met politically conscious black sailors who talked to him about racial segregation and colonialism. Like many World War II veterans, he came to see the contradiction of being told he was fighting for freedom abroad only to return to segregation at home in the U.S.

While working as a janitor in New York, Belafonte attended acting classes with the likes of Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Bea Arthur. He began singing folk, pop, and jazz songs in New York clubs, backed by musicians like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

He recorded his first album in 1954, and his next two albums quickly rose to the top of the charts. His third album, “Calypso," included his signature hit, "Day-O (the Banana Boat Song)." The popularity of calypso music allowed Belafonte to become known to a wider audience.

Throughout this time Belafonte continued to act, on Broadway and in several films. In 1959, he turned down a role in the film version of "Porgy and Bess" which he saw as racially demeaning. He credited that decision with fueling his rebel spirit. He also said he found a mentor in fellow singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson, a Communist blacklisted in the McCarthy Period. He referred to Robeson as part of his "moral compass." Belafonte also credited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as another of his mentors.

For the rest of his life, he used the platform provided to him by his fame as a singer and actor to speak out against injustice, saying that, in fact, that was most important to him. He bailed King out of jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He raised money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Freedom Riders, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

During the 1960s, Belafonte continued to experience racism from corporate sponsors like Revlon and Chrysler-Plymouth for simply appearing in films and television shows with white actresses.

Undeterred, Belafonte continued to make his voice heard. He later spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and the AIDS crisis in Africa and met with Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. He spoke out against George W. Bush’s supposed war on terror by calling him the “greatest terrorist in the world” and criticized Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice for collaborating with Bush. He criticized Barack Obama over Guantanamo Bay detentions. Even in his later years, he lent his voice in support of protesters against the murder of George Floyd.

Though not a revolutionary, Harry Belafonte refused to simply rest on his fame and popularity as a singer and actor, but instead used them to continue to speak out.