Freedom Ain't So Free
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In Honor of Black History Month

Harry Belafonte

This native New Yorker with Caribbean roots became a widely popular singer, television and big screen actor and nightclub performer. He was also a civil rights activist, risking his career for the principles of freedom and equality.  He is considered by many an “unsung hero” of the civil rights movement.  Who is this individual?

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Historical Notes

A multi-talented performer, Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr., known as Harry Belafonte, was born on March 1, 1927, in New York City.  The oldest son of Caribbean immigrants, Belafonte spent his early years in New York City. His mother worked as a dressmaker and a house cleaner, and his father served as a cook in the British Royal Navy. As a young child, Belafonte's parents divorced.  He was sent to Jamaica, his mother's native country, to live with relatives. There he witnessed the oppression of blacks by English authorities, which left a lasting impression on him.

Debuting on Broadway in 1953, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson's Almanac, in which he performed several of his own songs. Around this time, Belafonte launched his film career. Starring in Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical that was a contemporary, African-American version of the opera Carmen, Belafonte received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Joe, a soldier who falls for the title character, played by Dorothy Dandridge.  Belafonte proved to be a ground-breaker in another realm as well - he became the first African-American television producer, working on numerous musical shows.

Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson; writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1950s, Belafonte met Dr. King; the pair became good friends, and Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participated in numerous rallies and protests, and marched alongside Dr. King in the '60s.  Belafonte was with Dr. King when he gave the famous "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., and visited with him days before he was assassinated in 1968.

During the mid-1960s, Belafonte also began supporting new African artists. He and exiled South-African artist Miriam Makeba, won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording in 1966. He helped introduce her to international audiences, as well as call attention to life under apartheid in South Africa. Belafonte extended his voice as an activist for civil rights at home in America and abroad.

In the 1980s, Belafonte led an effort to help people in Africa. He came up with the idea of recording a song with other celebrities, which would be sold to raise funds to provide famine relief in Ethiopia. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, "We Are the World" featured vocals by such music greats as Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson.  Released in 1985, the song raised millions and became an international hit.

Over the years, Belafonte supported many other causes as well. In addition to his role as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he campaigned to end apartheid in South Africa, and has spoken out against U.S. military actions in Iraq.

On February 21, 2015, Mr. Belafonte was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Sixth Annual Governors' Awards in Los Angeles.  The singer, actor, and producer, was honored for his lifelong commitment to civil rights and social justice, both in the America and around the world.

Sae Mi Kim
Training Coordinator
USDA/OASCR/OCPTCT/Training and Cultural Transformation Division
202-205-0175 voice