Harry Belafonte, a barrier-breaking entertainer and a powerful pillar in the fight for civil rights, has joined the ancestors.
Longtime spokesman Ken Sunshine confirmed to the New York Times that Belafonte died in his Manhattan home on Tuesday morning (April 25) of congestive heart failure. He was 96.
Born in Harlem to West Indian immigrants on March 1, 1927, Belafonte was arguably the most successful Caribbean-American artist in pop music. His 1956 album, Calypso, topped the Billboard album chart shortly after release and stayed there for 31 weeks. That album is said to be the first to sell a million copies.
From that album came what would become his signature tune, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It peaked at #5 on the singles chart and would be featured in many movies and TV projects over the years, including DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and Beetlejuice.
As an actor, Belafonte would star in films such as Bright Road, Island in the Sun, Uptown Saturday Night, and the iconic Carmen Jones, opposite Dorothy Dandridge.
However, one would argue that Belafonte’s role as an activist and humanitarian far surpassed his legacy as an entertainer. Befriending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. early in his career, he would join Dr. King’s fight for racial equality.
During the course of their friendship, Belafonte put up money to start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was a principal fundraiser for the organization. He also bailed Dr. King and others out of jail and took part in the March on Washington.
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Furthermore, Belafonte helped provide for the family after King’s assassination in 1968.
Furthering his work as an activist in the 1980s, Belafonte was an organizer of the Live Aid concert and the recording of “We Are The World” for famine relief in Africa. He was also a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
In one of his final acts of giving back, Belafonte celebrated his 94th birthday in 2021 with a virtual party to raise money for his social justice organization, The Gathering For Justice, founded in 2005.
In his autobiography, Belafonte looked back on his life. “About my own life, I have no complaints,” he wrote. “Yet the problems faced by most Americans of color seem as dire and entrenched as they were half a century ago.”
He is survived by his wife, photographer Pamela Frank, and his four children.
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