Belafonte funded the Civil Rights Movement
The phone rang and my friend answered it. The call was from Harry Belafonte, and though my friend rarely interrupted our time together to take a phone call, Harry was an exception.
My friend was involved in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement as a fundraiser, and helped launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Fundraisers held concerts and donation events on college campuses and across many venues, especially in the northern states.
Harry was one person who would not only ante up but would lean on other friends and celebrities for help, too.
From my bleacher seat, it appeared to me that Harry Belafonte was the linchpin in funding the movement, which might have struggled for success without his support.
Although the early movement relied on volunteers, it also relied on donated cars, offices to coordinate activities, bail money for jailed activists, and needed, at its most basic, food and housing.
It may be difficult in 2023 to appreciate the line-crossing appeal of Harry Belafonte in 1960. He was one of the first, a black singer who charted and sold to white audiences, appeared on television, acted in films with crossover appeal. He also refused some roles later taken by his good friend, Sidney Poitier, including Porgy in Porgy and Bess as too stereo-typed.
He was also a personal friend across the exalted heights of celebrity. My friend told stories of getting a call from Harry at the office when Harry was in town, and the office secretary hanging up on “the prank caller.”
The last phone call from Harry was a chance to say good-by, two aging friends talking together about old times, current situations, and the likelihood they were in their final months/years. I know Harry did my friend one last favor after his death, his private way of acknowledging their friendship. I could see his fingerprints, although, like many of his supportive efforts, it would be invisible to most.
The obituaries for Harry Belafonte mark his human rights activism. But there is one other note I want to make. Belafonte never had, that we read about, drug-induced scandals or huge monetary losses. His savvy investments and business deals preserved financial resources not just for himself but for the many people who called Harry to help out with this cause.
He preserved the personal asset of his reputation, his personal availability and time, and his commitment to friendship over decades.