On April 25, we said farewell to one of the giants of American life. The rarest of individuals who combined immense artistic talent with an unrivaled sense of justice, Harry Belafonte made an indelible impact on the world.
Like Paul Robeson before him, Belafonte refused to allow superstardom to compromise his values. He willingly risked fame, fortune, and blacklisting; he passed on any number of lucrative film roles he deemed exploitative; and he used his influence to advance workers’ rights, racial equality, and countless other humanitarian goals.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, I knew Harry Belafonte as a cultural icon. On the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried in 1968, I recall sitting with my family around our small black-and-white TV watching the funeral—Harry Belafonte by Coretta Scott King’s side—and my father teaching me about Belafonte’s commitment to the civil rights cause. I never imagined that decades later, I would be sitting with Mr. B in his office, previewing a documentary about his life that contained that very same scene.
I came to know Mr. B through our mutual commitment to the labor movement and healthcare. Well before I became a rank-and-file member of my union, 1199, he was a major champion. He often spoke at events, performed at rallies, and lent his significant star power to expose the immense exploitation of the thousands of low-income, predominantly workers of color employed in New York’s hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, pharmacies, and in homecare.
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In 1959, when workers went on an historic 46-day strike in seven hospitals to demand union recognition and protest intolerable wages and working conditions, Harry Belafonte walked the picket line. This strike was instrumental in transforming New York’s healthcare system into an industry that today is much like what the auto industry was to Detroit decades ago: the foundation of our economy. Mr. B was there at ground zero, and the members of our union know him as much for his labor activism as for his artistic accomplishments.
Over the decades, Harry Belafonte became deeply involved in Bread & Roses, our union’s groundbreaking cultural program that promotes artistic creativity and expression for those who may otherwise have little access to the arts. Alongside other luminaries such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sidney Poitier, and many more, Belafonte inspired our members, and he eventually took the helm of the Bread and Roses program.
Mr. B’s great influence, or course, was not restricted to the United States. He was an internationalist, opposing wars abroad; organizing against apartheid in South Africa; establishing an AIDS foundation; becoming a UNICEF ambassador; and promoting education, democracy, and development worldwide. His list of accomplishments is astounding. I cannot think of a freedom or justice movement that did not have Harry Belafonte behind it in some way.
Harry Belafonte was, truly, a working-class hero: the son of a housekeeper and a cook who never lost sight of what is important. Being able to call Mr. B a mentor, brother, and friend has been one of the great privileges of my life. He was an amazing man—a man of history, and his legacy will live on through the millions of people he has inspired to fight for a better world.
George Gresham is president of 1199 SIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of healthcare workers in the nation.