As remembered by the SNCC Legacy Project (SLP) ~
April 25, 2023
Friend of SNCC, entertainer, humanitarian Harry Belafonte died today at age
96. The SNCC Legacy Project mourns the passing of this great American. Mr.
B. last sang in public at the SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference in 2010. Our
condolences to his wife, children and extended family.
As remembered by Bruce
April 26, 2023
Harry Belafonte ¡Presente!
The world knew Harry Belafonte as a great singer and entertainer. We of the
Civil Rights Movement knew him as a courageous fellow activist and life-long
freedom fighter. Yes, year after year — when it was popular
and when it wasn't — he performed at freedom march rallies,
fundraising concerts, movement-staff retreats, and organizational conferences.
But his service went went far deeper than entertainment. He was a movement
planner, strategist, and at times a protest leader. He put his body and career
on the line and was so respected that at times he was called upon to mediate
and heal bitter disagreements between rival organizations and leaders.
We Freedom Movement veterans still remember:
- 1957. That Harry Belafonte was there at the
Prayer Pilgrimage for
Freedom Freedom, Washington, DC. When 30,000 people rallied at the Lincoln
Memorial — the largest civil rights demonstration up to that
- 1959. That after the Youth March for Integrated Schools, he helped lead a
delegation of students to the White House to meet with President
Eisenhower — only to be turned away because neither the
president nor any of his assistants or aides we willing to meet with pro-
integration students or receive their statement.
- 1960. That when Dr. King was under legal attack in Alabama, he and A.
Philip Randolph formed a "Committee to Defend Dr. King and the Struggle for
Freedom in the South." Harry, Bayard Rustin, and Lorraine Hansbury
authored Heed Their Rising
Voices and he raised $4,800 (equal to almost $50,000 today) to run it
as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times.
White-supremacists in Montgomery then sued the Times for libel, a case
known as Times v Sullivan that went all the way to a Supreme
Court victory. (A case that is now again much in the news as MAGA-Republicans
are trying to get our Republican-dominated SCOTUS to overturn Sullivan
63 years later so that critics can be silenced with punitive libel suits.)
- 1961. That Belafonte supported and joined many of SNCC's student
leaders in a strategic shift to voter registration and a demand for a fair
sharee of political power. SNCC leader J. Charles Jones
later recalled that in the
summer of '61, he, Belafonte, Tim Jenkins, and others arranged a conference of
SNCC leaders in Washington to hammer out a strategy. Belfonte then raised the
funds to hire Charles Sherrod, Bob Moses, Hollis Watkins, Sam Block, Wazir
Peacock, and others as SNCC field secretaries committed to deep organizing in
the rural areas and small towns of the south.
- 1961. That Harry followed up by becoming a member of SNCC's
Committee in October of 1961 along with Ms. Ella Baker. As part of his
work on the ExCom, he pulled together a press conference and support appeal
for students facing expulsion and violence McComb MS.
- 1962. That Dick Gregory and Belafonte led an initiative in the fall of
'62 to bring emergency
food and clothing to Greenwood and the Mississippi Delta for African
Americans evicted from their hopes and illegally denied federal food aid
because they had dared to say they wished to vote.
- 1963. That Harry played a key role in
Crusade. Prior to the first protest, he met with Dr. King and others to
develop strategy, raise funds, arrange for bail bonds, and marshall political
support in the North to pressure a reluctant Kennedy and Congress to pass
effective cilil rights legislation. While young protesters were facing
fire-hoses and attack dogs on the streets of Birminghan, Belafonte mobilized
and coordinated support efforts across the country, helped arrange publication
of Dr. King's Letter From a
Birmingham Jail, and (at no small risk to his career) condemned the
national media's disregard and distortion of the Birmingham campaign.
Working with the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USWA), and
New York City Transport Workers (TWU) unions, Belafonte raised enough money to
bail out the jailed demonstrators so that a settlement could be
reached — delivering a briefcase full of cash that movement
attorney Clarence Jones carried by hand from New York to Birmingham in the
nick of time. The next day, when the prison doors opened and the children
streamed out, Rev. Shuttlesworth was able to announce to the world press,
"That the city of Birmingham has reached an accord with its
- 1963. Recalling the March on Washington Joyce Ladner of SNCC later noted: "When I saw Harry
Belafonte leading a group of Hollywood actors onstage I knew, for the first
time, that support for the largely Southern-based civil rights movement had
expanded so much that it extended to the far reaches of the nation. Charlton
Heston, Diahann Carroll, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, James
Garner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lena Horne, and James
Baldwin stayed through the entire program."
- 1963. That Belafonte helped pull together the
Theater that performed — free of
charge — in churches and other donated community spaces for
audiences that had never seen a play with live actors.
- 1964. That behind the scenes, Harry played key support roles in
Mississippi Freedom Summer. In
one instance, after Greenwood youth leader Silas McGee was shot by KKK
nightriders, summer volunteer Linda Whetmore
recalled: "I could hear in the background the cops talking about "that
nigger Silas." I heard one cop say, "They've got to get him out of here
tonight, because if he doesn't die in that hospital, we'll kill him
ourselves." So we helicoptered him from Greenwood Hospital and took him down
to the Jackson Hospital. I believe the funds for the helicopter were from
Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier." Silas McGhee was later elected mayor
- 1964. That it was Harry Belafonte who after Freedom Summer arranged,
funded, and accompanied a SNCC Delegation to Africa. At Belafonte's request,
President Sekou Toure of the Republic of Guinea extended an official
invitation and offered to host the SNCC workers as guests of the people of
Guinea. SNCC President John Lewis, Executive Director James Forman,
Communications Directory Julian Bond, COFO Project Director Bob Moses, and
activist-organizers Prathia Hall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bill Hansen, Donald
Harris, Matthew Jones, Donna Richards, and Ruby Doris Robinson fly from New
York to Dakar, Senegal and from there to Guinea.
- 1965. That when the The March to Montgomery reached the city, Belafonte put on
a free "Stars for Freedom" performance for the huge crowd. From an improvised
outdoor stage layed atop coffins loaned by Black funeral homes, Mahalia
Jackson, Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein, Nina Simone, Peter, Paul
and Mary, Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis, Odetta, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ella
Fitzgerald, and scores of others, entertained the weary marchers and a huge
crowd of supporters.
At the concluding rally at the Alabama capitol the next day, the speakers
platform was a flatbed truck equipped with microphones and loudspeakers. It
broadcast the event live on national TV, but when Mary Travers of Peter, Paul,
and Mary joyfully kissed Harry on the cheek, so many outraged whites swamped
studio phone lines that CBS switched to their regular soap operas until a
flood of equally angry viewers on the other side forced them to restore
- 1965. That when SNCC and SCLC were bitterly divided over the Selma
campaign and 1965 summer
programs, Harry mediated a sit-down in Atlanta between leaders of the two
organizations. Coming out of that meeting, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC
commented: "In terms of overall goals, SCLC is very radical. King said
economic problems were the real issue of the country, but didn't know how to
get to them. I think the cats are honest." He argued that SNCC should
cooperate with SCLC's summer project and use King's mass appeal. "The
students coming down with SCOPE will have to come to the SNCC workers. The
same holds true for King. ... The people will follow King, but he'll still
have to go through the SNCC workers."
- 1966. That after SNCC worker Sammy Young was
murdered by a
white racist in Macon County Alabama, Harry publicized the killing by issuing
Message from Harry Belafonte.
- 1966. That when SCLC's Chicago and
campaigns were draining SCLC's financial resources, Belafonte recruited
Mahalia Jackson, Dick Gregory, Sidney Poitier, and George Kirby to star in an
evening "Freedom Festival" at Chicago's International Amphitheater on the
South Side (later to be the site of the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention).
A sellout crowd of more than 12,000 attended the festival and thousands more
were turned away for lack of space. After expenses, more than $80,000 was
raised for the CFM (equal to $770,000 in 2014).
- 1968. That Harry Belafonte was meeting with Corretta King when she
heard the news that her husband had just been assassinated in Memphis. He
helped her through the trying days that followed and urged her to continue
supporting the Memphis workers. Belafonte later noted that Dr. King had once
told him that given the outrageously violent and unjust behavior of white
America they were attempting to integrate into a burning house. Belafonte
asked what should be done? King said, "We all need to become firemen (and
And we remember that in the years that followed, decade after decade, Harry
Belafonte continued to support and participate in campaigns for freedom,
justice, and racial equality. From student strikes at places like San
Francisco State to Black Lives Matter protests in cities across America.
Harry Belafonte ¡Presente!
As remembered by Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance
April 26, 2023
Belafonte was a fervent supporter of the Federation of Southern
Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (the Federation), and its many programs
throughout the Southern Region. In 2003, the Federation marked Belafontes
contributions by awarding him our highest honor, the Estelle Witherspoon Award
at the Annual Awards Banquet in Birmingham, Alabama. The award is named after
Estelle Witherspoon, the woman who led efforts to unite the Gees Bend quilters
into the nationally famous Quilting Bee Co-op in Alberta, Alabama.
Belafonte was active in the civil rights movement and a close friend of civil
rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1969, Belafonte wrote a
fundraising letter urging people to donate towards the purchase of land for
the Freedom Farm Cooperative. In his letter, Belafonte wrote that Freedom Farm
was an "example of initiative, racial co-operation, and political militancy
worthy of the support of all decent Americans."
Due to these fundraising efforts, enough money was raised to buy over 700
He continued to support and work with the Federation on present-day civil
rights issues. During his talk at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on January
17, 2013, Belafonte spoke of his efforts to bring the gangs of Los Angeles
together to find ways to communicate. "I paid everyones way to Epes, Alabama,
a backcountry settlement of former sharecroppers one hundred miles away from
the nearest distractions. It now served as a base for the Federation of
Southern Cooperatives, dedicated to helping black farmers keep their land."
The late Ralph Paige, 2nd FSC/LAF Executive Director, worked very closely with
Belafonte during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Paige recounted: "We could
not buy the support that Harry has given the Federation over the years.
Without his (Belafontes) backing, the Federation could not have achieved so
many things. I still call him a lot and in all those years he has never turned
Belafonte supported the Federation and co-operatives because he understood
that co-operatives focus on the daily task of building community and social
networks. Co-operatives get poor people to work together yet co-operatives
take time. Belafonte often funded and participated in Federation events that
were gatherings of all races to look for ways to work together in the rural
South. Belafonte has stuck with the Federation through thick and thin.
[The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund is a 56-year-old
cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners, and