Harry Belafonte, the legendary entertainer and civil rights activist, died on Tuesday at the age of 96. Belafonte, who began his career as a groundbreaking actor and singer, became an activist, humanitarian, and conscience of the world. His wife Pamela was by his side when he passed away due to congestive heart failure at his New York home.
With his glowing, handsome face and silky-husky voice, Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to gain a wide following on film and to sell a million records as a singer. Many still know him for his signature hit, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”
Belafonte was not just an entertainer but also a prominent activist who worked closely with his friend and generational peer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He not only participated in protest marches and benefit concerts but also helped organize and raise support for them. Belafonte risked his life and livelihood and set high standards for younger Black celebrities. He mentored Usher, Common, Danny Glover, and many others.
Belafonte was fittingly cast as an elder statesman schooling young activists about the country’s past in Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman.” He was the rare person to grow more radical with age, ever engaged and unyielding, willing to take on Southern segregationists, Northern liberals, the billionaire Koch brothers, and the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama, whom Belafonte criticized for failing to live up to his promise and lacking “fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or Black.”
Belafonte won a Tony Award in 1954 for his starring role in John Murray Anderson’s “Almanac” and five years later became the first Black performer to win an Emmy for the TV special “Tonight with Harry Belafonte.” In 1968, he made history by filling in for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight” show for a full week.
Belafonte’s legacy goes beyond his entertainment and activism work. He was mindful to the end that he grew up in poverty, and he did not think of himself as an artist who became an activist, but an activist who happened to be an artist. Belafonte will always be remembered as a true icon and a beacon of hope for generations to come.