Harry Belafonte: Veteran, Singer, Activist — Part I

By Nick Braune

I am currently savoring the new autobiography of Harry Belafonte, My Song. Hearing about it last weekend, I whizzed over to Barnes and Noble. Belafonte has been on my mind because my spring Social and Political Philosophy class did a project about the 1950s.
A fellow teacher suggested I ask a student to research Belafonte, but no student seemed interested and only two out of the ten students in the class recognized his name. I told them excitedly that Belafonte had been on the Ed Sullivan Show, had made movies and albums, and had hosted TV “specials.” He was, I explained, also a civil rights leader, was at the 1963 March on Washington, and is pictured in a famous photograph with Coretta Scott King at Martin Luther King’s funeral. But nothing seemed to ring a bell. Students just hadn’t heard of him.

Never giving up, I told the students about Belafonte’s famous song “Day-o,” about loading bananas on a boat in Jamaica. This (“Calypso”) was the first LP album ever to sell a million copies…I tried singing Day-o…but it still didn’t work. (I gave my best disgusted stare…good grief, you students are pathetic. But they just as strongly stared back…good grief, you are old. And I knew they won the glaring match.)

Back to the autobiography. Harry Belafonte had a tough childhood, having been born in Harlem in 1927 to alcoholic parents and being shipped off sometimes to live with relatives in Jamaica. His family was sadly frantic just to stay alive in the Depression years.

Ambitious to do something important, he left home to enter the Navy during WWII, disguising the fact that he was blind in one eye due to a childhood accident playing with scissors. He served his country but simmered with rage at the discrimination he witnessed, being one of the “lowliest and most expendable sailors in the U.S. Navy, the black ones.”

When more than 200 black sailors were killed in an explosion while loading munitions in Chicago, there was a walkout there against institutional racism. Belafonte was one of the black sailors sent to replace the sailors who went on strike. “As we arrived on the scene, with mangled structures and debris still in evidence, those sailors [who had walked off the job] were being court marshaled, 50 of them sentenced to long terms for mutiny.” The Navy found its quota of black live munitions handlers just as Belafonte arrived, so luckily he was shipped somewhere else. He was happy to leave, but angry. Interestingly however, ongoing public sentiment over the Port Chicago disaster helped desegregate the armed services in 1948.

Witnessing continuing discrimination after the war, Belafonte dedicated his life to fighting racism and economic injustice. (Remember Hector P. Garcia of Mercedes felt the same way after WWII and formed a prominent civil rights group for Mexican Americans, the American G.I. Forum.)

One of the many stories related in Belafonte’s book concerns his response to the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of young civil rights workers in Mississippi. Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier went to Mississippi to protest the racism there, and Belafonte remembers facing considerable danger in the small town of Greenwood. A helicopter had even flown over Greenwood dropping leaflets to stir up the townsfolk against blacks and outsiders.

Poitier, who was scared out of his wits and perturbed at Belafonte for getting him into the small town with just a few civil rights workers around for protection, began singing “Day-o.” (Belafonte’s autobiography describes this song as “a cry from the heart of poor workers, a cry of weariness mingled with hope.”) “Day-o, day-o. Daylight come an’ me wan’ go home.” And then everybody in the small meeting hall sang out, “Freedom, freedom. Freedom come an’ it won’t be long.” Somehow the danger passed and they got home safely.

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