The passing of legendary artist and political activist Harry Belafonte has been felt throughout the labor movement. Beyond his celebrity, Belafonte was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement––and, by extension, its ties to labor activism.
Actors’ Equity, the union that represents stage, theater, and film performers, tweeted that “Equity mourns the passing of legendary actor, musician, and activist Harry Belafonte. Belafonte received the union’s Paul Robeson Award in recognition of his extensive civil rights and social justice advocacy. He will be deeply missed.”
In a statement about the actor, who once served as president of the union’s not-for-profit culture-based project, Bread & Roses, 1199SEIU President George Gresham said, “1199SEIU healthcare workers mourn the passing of our beloved ‘Mr. B.’ Harry Belafonte was a pioneering artist, social justice warrior, and healthcare champion. His lifelong commitment to advancing freedom and equality—often risking his own career and livelihood in the process—is testament to his character and courage.
“I cannot think of a social justice movement in my lifetime that didn’t have Mr. B behind it in some way.”
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Belafonte’s extensive civil rights and social justice advocacy turned him into a great example of how celebrity can be used to further economic justice. Of course, the actor’s major role of supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family stands in the forefront. But Belafonte’s work with King was only one part of his activism.
When King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, he had been championing a strike by some 1,300 African American sanitation workers. King’s Poor People’s Campaign saw him advocate for fair wages and demand economic reforms to help end poverty.
Demanding economic reforms that would help low-wage and exploited workers was a challenge Belafonte also pursued. When he took up the mantle of supporting King’s work in the 1950s, it was not his first foray into progressive politics. Belafonte had long admired the stance of the activist/actor Paul Robeson, who had been branded a communist because of his labor union activism and his trips to the Marxist-Leninist–oriented Soviet Union.
Even after he was blacklisted by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Belafonte remained enchanted by Robeson’s forthright stature and came to look at the way he had combined art and activism as an important roadmap to follow.
Belafonte became as much of an activist artist as Robeson. As recently as 2013, LaborPress reported that Belafonte told an audience in Queens, “We’ve got to get outside of the box. The way to get outside the box is to radicalize the schools, radicalize unions, radicalize people, radicalize religion.
“Radical doesn’t mean violence,” Belafonte cautioned. “Radicalize doesn’t mean to hurt, harm, or disrupt. The word ‘radical’ means different from the norm.”
Belafonte had said that he thought organized labor was not fighting for its rights with the urgency that it needed. “I do genuinely believe that the labor movement has got to understand that it has got to stop behaving as the victim, and to begin behaving like the masters of destiny,” he is reported to have said.
The actor often spoke out in support of labor struggles he came across. He was vocal in supporting strikes by unions like Local 802 – American Federation of Musicians when it waged a Justice for Jazz Artists campaign in 2013 to gain retirement and recording protections for musicians who often worked in clubs and in studios their whole lives but retired and found themselves living in poverty.
Belafonte had been a supporter of the labor organizing teachings of Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School. Highlander––which styled itself a “movement-building” center––was famous for holding seminars and classes for civil rights organizers in the 1950s. It also sponsored regular lectures about labor economics, union organizing, and labor history.
Belafonte wholeheartedly believed in Highlander’s movement-building philosophy. He went on to work with and become a confidante of Long Beach, California, labor organizer Ernest McBride; United Automobile Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther; Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A. Philip Randolph; and Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union.
In 1959, Belafonte formed part of a triumvirate with baseball star Jackie Robinson and actor Sidney Poitier that promoted African nationalism and trade union organizing. The three helped fund the efforts of Kenya’s Justice Minister Tom Mboya to put together Project Air Lift Africa, which brought 81 Kenyan students to the U.S. to attend college. “I, along with Jackie Robinson and fellow artist Sidney Poitier, agreed to help implement Tom’s vision,” Belafonte wrote in the foreword to the 2009 book “Airlift to America. How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours” by Tom Shachtman, which details the efforts to get Project Air Lift Africa up and running.
“I wrote letters and gave concerts to raise funds to charter airplanes that would bring young people from East Africa who had successfully applied for scholarships at many of our colleges and universities,” Belafonte said. “The concerts did well and the response to the mailing was extraordinary. Postal workers from the Bronx sent one- and two-dollar contributions with letters explaining how important they realized the airlift would be for the future of a free Africa. Many people from across America sent their precious contributions, few exceeding twenty-five dollars. It was an amazing outpouring of belief in a dream.”
Project Air Lift Africa united Kenyan trade unionism with the organizing work of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Its efforts helped Kenyan students gain important labor, governmental, and nation-building skills as the country moved toward independence from Britain.
Belafonte the celebrity will be remembered for having leveraged the power of his fame to help improve the social and economic conditions of working people.
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