Did You Know? By Emma Cowley

Did You Know? Many of us know Harry Belefonte as the famous “Day-O” singer but did you know that he was also an activist that fought against racism as well? He used his entertainment fortune to help fund the civil rights movement at home along with  human rights causes worldwide. Belefonte was a confidant to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and spent years as a liaison between the civil rights movement and entertainment capitals of Hollywood and NYC. Belefonte met King in 1956 when he invited him to hear him preach at Harlems’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. After hearing King’s sermon he spoke of King as a transformative influence in his life. He was a big contributor to King’s movement and he was influential in getting his friends Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Lena Horne and Henry Fonda to raise more than $100,000 to fund the Freedom Rides in 1964 that challenged racial segregation in interstate transportation. He also brought Tony Bennett, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston to the March on Washington where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which was a show of white support that helped make King’s address more universal in its appeal to people. Harry Belefonte was the first Black fill- in host for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and he used the platform to entertain but also would also discuss civil rights, the Vietnam War and the starvation in Appalachia with guests such as, MLK Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. That same year he performed the anti-war song “ On the Path of Glory” with Petula Clark on an NBC special. Belefonte also raised huge amounts of money quickly to bail out civil rights leaders and protestors out of Southern jails. After the assignation of Martin Luther King Jr. he helped start TransAfrica which worked to press economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime and he lobbied for the release of Nelson Mandela. In 1987, he became the second American to be awarded the “goodwill ambassador “ for UNICEF. Harry Belefonte was a great talent as an entertainer but has left an amazing legacy in fighting against racial injustice and inequity here in America and across the world. 


For more information on his life’s work and his contributions as an activist :