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Harry Belafonte, Activist and Entertainer, Dies at 96

AP Photo/Kathy Willens, file
Singer and activist Harry Belafonte speaks during a memorial tribute concert for folk icon and civil rights activist Pete Seeger in New York on July 20, 2014.

NEW YORK (AP) — Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant who began as a groundbreaking actor and singer and became an activist, humanitarian and conscience of the world, has died. He was 96.

Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home, his wife Pamela by his side, said publicist Ken Sunshine.

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 “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and its call of “Day-O! Daaaaay-O.” But he forged a greater legacy once he scaled back his performing career in the 1960s and lived out his hero Paul Robeson’s decree that artists are “gatekeepers of truth.”

Belafonte stands as the model and the epitome of the celebrity activist. Few kept up with his time and commitment and none his stature as a meeting point among Hollywood, Washington and the Civil Rights Movement.

Belafonte not only participated in protest marches and benefit concerts, but helped organize and raise support for them. He worked closely with his friend and generational peer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He risked his life and livelihood and set high standards for younger Black celebrities, mentoring Usher, Common, Danny Glover and many others. In Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman,” he was fittingly cast as an elder statesman schooling young activists about the country’s past.

Belafonte was a major artist since the 1950s. He 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.”

His “Calypso,” released in 1955, became the first officially certified million-selling album by a solo performer, and started a national infatuation with Caribbean rhythms (Belafonte was nicknamed, reluctantly, the “King of Calypso”).

Belafonte befriended King in the spring of 1956 after the young civil rights leader called and asked for a meeting. They spoke for hours, and Belafonte would remember feeling King raised him to the “higher plane of social protest.” Then at the peak of his singing career, Belafonte was soon producing a benefit concert for the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that helped make King a national figure. By the early 1960s, he had decided to make civil rights his priority.

“I was having almost daily talks with Martin,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir “My Song.” “I realized that the movement was more important than anything else.”

The Kennedys were among the first politicians to seek his opinions, which he willingly shared. John F. Kennedy, at a time when Black voters were as likely to support Republicans as they would Democrats, was so anxious for his support that during the 1960 election he visited Belafonte at his Manhattan home.

When King was assassinated, in 1968, Belafonte helped pick out the suit he was buried in, sat next to his widow, Coretta, at the funeral, and continued to support his family, though they later became estranged.

“Much of my political outlook was already in place when I encountered Dr. King,” Belafonte later wrote. “I was well on my way and utterly committed to the civil rights struggle. I came to him with expectations and he affirmed them.”

King’s death left Belafonte isolated from the civil rights community. He was turned off by the separatist beliefs of Stokely Carmichael and other “Black Power” activists and had little chemistry with King’s designated successor, The Rev. Ralph Abernathy. But the entertainer’s causes extended well beyond the U.S.

He coordinated Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the U.S. since being released from prison in 1990. A few years earlier, he had initiated the all-star, million-selling “We Are the World” recording, the Grammy-winning charity song for famine relief in Africa.

He made news years earlier when he compared Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state, to a slave “permitted to come into the house of the master” for his service in the George W. Bush administration. He was in Washington in January 2009 as Obama was inaugurated. But Belafonte would later criticize Obama for failing to live up to his promise and lacking “fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or Black.”

He was married three times, most recently to photographer Pamela Frank, and had four children. He is also survived by two stepchildren and eight grandchildren.

A New York City native, Belafonte began performing on stage in the 1940s and by the following decade was also singing, finding gigs at the Blue Note, the Vanguard and other clubs — and becoming immersed in folk, blues, jazz and the calypso he had heard while living in Jamaica. Starting in 1954, he released such top 10 albums as “Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites” and “Belafonte,” and his popular singles included “Mathilda,” “Jamaica Farewell” and “The Banana Boat Song,” a reworked Caribbean ballad that was a late addition to his “Calypso” record.

Belafonte made history in 1968 by filling in for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight” show for a full week. Later that year, Belafonte performed on a pre-taped TV special and was joined by British singer Petula Clark for a performance of the anti-war song “On the Path of Glory.” At one point, Clark placed a hand on Belafonte’s arm. The show’s sponsor, Chrysler, demanded the segment be reshot. Clark and Belafonte resisted, successfully, and for the first time a white woman touched a Black man’s arm on primetime television.

Mindful to the end that he grew up in poverty, Belafonte did not think of himself as an artist who became an activist, but an activist who happened to be an artist.

“When you grow up, son,” Belafonte remembered his mother telling him, “never go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.” ____

Former Associated Press writer Mike Stewart contributed to this report.