Remembering Singer, Actor and Activist Harry Belafonte

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 
Harry Belafonte
Humanitarian, actor and activist Harry Belafonte died April 25, 2023, at age 96. Here he's seen at the 2016 Library Lions Gala at New York Public Library. Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Harry Belafonte, who is known for breaking down racial barriers in the 1950s and for his work in the civil rights movement, died Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Manhattan. He was 96. His longtime spokesman, Ken Sunshine, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Harry Belafonte was born Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr., in Harlem, New York, March 1, 1927, to Jamaican immigrant parents. An award-winning recording artist and performer of both stage and screen, Belafonte popularized a form of Caribbean folk music called calypso.


But Belafonte is also remembered as an activist, telling journalist Gwen Ifill in 2011 that "what attracted me to the arts was that I saw theater as a social force, a political force."

At the height of his popularity, Belafonte lent the power of his celebrity — through his voice and his finances — to the civil rights movement, anti-apartheid movement and other social justice causes. He remained a staunch advocate for human rights throughout his life, even serving at age 89 as one of the co-chairs of the Women's March on Washington in 2017.


Belafante, the Early Years

Harry Belafonte
Belafonte starred as Joe in the 1954 American musical film "Carmen Jones," a rare film that featured an all-Black cast. John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1932, Belafonte returned to Jamaica with his mother. He remained there until 1940 when he moved back to New York City. He attended high school briefly but left to join the Navy during World War II. He was honorably discharged at the end of his service, then got a job as a janitor's assistant.

One night a customer gave him tickets to an American Negro Theater production and he was hooked. He became friends with actors Paul Robeson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Sidney Portier and later earned a Tony Award for his role in "John Murray Anderson's Almanac." Belafonte made his film debut in the 1953 film "Bright Road" and followed up with "Carmen Jones" in 1954. His last movie was Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" in 2018.


In addition to working in theater and film, Belafonte began singing in jazz and folk clubs in Greenwich Village. His popularity took off with the 1956 release of "Calypso," the first album to sell more than 1 million copies in a year. The album included the "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" which reached No. 5 on the pop charts.

Over the course of his career, Belafonte earned 11 Grammy nominations, winning two Grammy Awards, one in 1960 for his performance of "Swing Dat Hammer," the second in 1964 for Best Folk Record, "An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba." He also received the Recording Academy President's Merit Award in 1965 and later received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986.


The Activist Emerges

Harry Belafonte
Belafonte first heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in the 1950s. He became a staunch supporter of King's non-violent movement, and continued to support Coretta Scott King after her husband's death. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Belafonte met Dr. Martin Luther King in the early 1950s when Belafonte went to hear King, who was still an obscure preacher, speak in Harlem. Both men were in their early 20s. The singer went all in, using his financial success to help support the pastor and his family and the civil rights movement.

"I threw my lot in with [King] completely, put a fortune behind the movement," Belafonte told The New York Times in 2017. "Whatever money I had saved went for bonds and bail and rent, money for guys to get in their car and go wherever. I was Daddy Warbucks."


In 1956, Belafonte appeared at a fundraising event in New York with Coretta Scott King and Duke Ellington, and during the 1960s provided financial assistance to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as they planned and executed the Birmingham Campaign, a desegregation campaign that ran from April 3 to May 10, 1963.

During that time, King was arrested and wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." While King was in jail, Belafonte raised $50,000 to help the campaign continue. Belafonte helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

After King was assassinated in 1968, Belafonte served as an executor of King's estate. "Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck," wrote Coretta Scott King in her memoir, "My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.," "Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open."

Belafonte's activism didn't stop with civil rights in the U.S. He was just as concerned about those suffering under the oppression of apartheid in South Africa or dying from famine, war and disease.

He was instrumental in organizing the star-studded U.S.A. for Africa "We Are the World" recording session for famine relief in Africa in 1985. He sought the release of political prisoners, including South African leader Nelson Mandela. He raised funds for HIV treatment and prevention. He served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and as cultural adviser for the Peace Corps.

He also founded Sankofa, an organization where artists use their talents to create awareness and amplify voices for social change.

Harry Belafonte
Belafonte went full in on his activism. Here he's speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000 civil rights marchers in the Manhattan Garment Center at a civil rights rally in the early 1960s.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images


Honoring a Legend

In 1989, Belafonte received the Kennedy Centers Honors for excellence in the performing arts and in 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Belafonte the National Medal of Arts for contributions to the cultural life of the United States.

Belafonte received numerous honorary degrees from institutions including Spellman College in Atlanta, Tufts University, Brandeis University and Columbia University. In 2013, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, for outstanding achievement by an African American. He received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2014 for outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.


Throughout his life — as an artist and as an activist — Belafonte dedicated himself to promoting justice for the disenfranchised, oppressed or underserved. To him there was no higher calling.