The man who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, helped break racial barriers in Broadway and television, and became a renowned folk singer died in Vancouver, Canada, Oct. 23. Charles Leon Arthello Bibb was 93.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Dorie Bibb Clay.
Whatever the audience, Bibb’s warm baritone voice would wake their consciousness. His activism often paralleled his work in music, television and the stage. Clay recalled a proud memory she had of her father when he participated in an assembly at her junior high school. He was there to discuss the Voting Rights Act and the marches in Selma.
“I remember thinking as he was describing it, and I hadn’t realized how important the third Pettus Bridge march had been for the Civil Rights Movement, how brave he had been,” said Clay. “I knew him as a dad and I knew him as a singer, but the fact that he put himself out there to do that made me very proud.”
At times, Bibb’s decision to protest against the injustices that plagued the African-American community and his friendships with other activists stifled his already limited opportunities in the entertainment world.
He was blacklisted in the late 1950s during the McCarthy era for his close relationship with Paul Robeson, who was labeled a communist and denied a renewal of his passport. As a result, Bibb had to record and perform under the alias Lee Charles for a few years. Robeson is the godfather of two of Bibb’s three children.
“We talked about what he had given up as a result of that, what was taken away, but we also talked about principles and some of the decisions he made,” said Clay.
One opportunity that he gave up was returning to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Both of Bibb’s daughters, Clay and Amy Bibb Ford, recalled how Sullivan approached their father and asked him to sign a loyalty oath. Bibb, who had already made 10 or 11 appearances on the show and established a relationship with Sullivan, refused to sign.
“The network had become concerned that he had been associated with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, specifically singing benefits for Paul Robeson at the time he was struggling to get his passport back,” said Clay. “They did not like the left-wing association, and they wanted him to sign this loyalty oath disassociating himself from those people who were both his friends and mentors artistically and politically.”
“I don’t know if it struck him as he had to give up one for the other,” said Ford on whether she felt that her father felt there should have been a separation between his activism and his work. “But his belief system certainly informed some of the decisions he made in terms of his career.”
The 1950s and 1960s were an era that ushered in a sense of social responsibility from celebrities, so Bibb was surrounded by those who understood the importance of speaking out against racism.
“They weren’t all tucked away in Hollywood,” said Ford. “I saw in the paper this picture of dad with [Harry] Belafonte, and [Joan] Baez and Mary Travers and Oscar Brand are in it, and you look at the edge of the corner and Dr. King is right there. They were so physically close, it was amazing.”
Leon Bibb’s son-in-law Omowale Clay told the Amsterdam News, “Leon came up during a period of intense racism, brutal repression and American wars, alongside such civil rights giants as Robeson, King and Baldwin, that the era produced. His humanity, socialist ideals and commitment to use his brilliant artistic skills in the service of his people made it my honor to know him and be his son-in-law.”
Bibb was born Feb. 7, 1922, in Louisville, Ky. His career began in New York City when he appeared in the original 1946 Broadway production of “Annie Get Your Gun.” He was one of three African-Americans in the chorus at a time when Blacks were mostly nonexistent on Broadway. He appeared in other Broadway productions, and in 1966, he starred in “A Hand Is on the Gate,” which landed him a Tony Award nomination.
In 1968, he starred in the revival of “Carnival,” a musical that cast him as a French puppeteer and love interest of a white woman. The color-blind casting was controversial at a time when interracial relationships were taboo.
Although roles were limited, he was a dynamic force on the stage. “Daddy wanted to sing. He probably would have preferred to have had a bigger Broadway career, but the roles weren’t offered to African-American men in that period to do as many roles as he would’ve liked,” said Clay.
He continued to record music regularly and made many appearances on television and in musicals and films. Bibb moved to Vancouver in 1971 after falling in love with the city during a tour in 1970 and performed both there and in the states.
Whether he was in America or Canada, Bibb’s commitment to social justice remained a cornerstone of his life. In 1985 he performed a benefit concert to support the “New York Eight” in a federal case. The case had a great impact on Bibb’s personal life. One of the accused was his son-in-law, Omowale Clay (Dorie Bibb Clay’s husband). Clay and seven other Black revolutionaries, who were protesting for the rights of Black people under the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which sought to alienate them, were charged with conspiracy.
“Those were the kind of principles that he stood for and that he held,” said Clay of her father.
In 1992, Bibb founded, “A Step Ahead,” a program that provided youth with a platform to discuss diversity, racism, bullying and multiculturalism. It has been established in more than 120 Canadian schools.
Bibb’s last New York appearance was in 2007, alongside his singer and musician son Eric Bibb at B.B. King Blues Club and Grill in Times Square.
“What mattered to him was that he be seen as a person who was committed to his art, to his family, to his people and to the movements that would advance all of the above,” said Clay.
Bibb is survived by his partner, Christine Anton, his children Dorie, Eric and Amy; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.