Harry Belafonte, Activist And Entertainer, Dies At 96

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Harry Belafonte, the legendary singer, actor, and civil rights activist, died Tuesday, April 25. He was 96.

According to the New York Times, reps for the musician confirmed in a press release that Belafonte passed away of congestive heart failure at his home in Manhattan, with his wife Pamela by his side.

Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to craft a successful career, and to sell a million records as a singer; with his signature hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” Although he was widely known as an amazing entertainer, he created a greater legacy for himself by dedicating his life to the cause of human and civil rights.

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Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in Harlem, in 1927, he was the son of immigrants, and moved to Jamaica with his mother for five years before returning to the U.S. to continue high school, serving in the Navy during World War II shortly thereafter. To make ends meet, he sang in New York nightclubs, making a name for himself around town. He was seen by RCA Victor at the Village Vanguard, and signed to a record contract in 1952.

Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, Belafonte excelled in the industry, scoring chart-topping singles such as “Matilda,” along with winning a Tony Award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a musical in 1954 for the revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.” That same year, he starred in the all-Black film adaptation of Carmen Jones, alongside the legendary Dorothy Dandridge.

In 1960, he received an Emmy for his performance in the musical special “Tonight With Belafonte,” which made him the first Black artist to win an Emmy. He followed it up with another nomination the next year. As the decade progressed, he would be visibly absent from the big screen due to the roles he was being offered, and began traveling the world in support of the civil rights movement in America. 

Already an established figure in the movement from his association with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 at a New York fundraising event for activists working in Montgomery, Belafonte campaigned for Sen. John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, and after Kennedy was elected, he became a liaison between King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He also funded the Freedom Riders and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was a key figure in the organization of the historic March on Washington of August 1963.

For the remainder of his acting career, Belafonte would appear in films such as Uptown Saturday Night, White Man’s Burden, Kansas City – which he won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor – and 2006’s Bobby, among others. He also used his phenomenal talent as a musician to help boister his activism by assisting in the organization of the single “We Are the World,” which was devoted to eradicating poverty in Africa.

Belafonte continued his cause to push towards a better tomorrow for the rest of his life, receiving numerous honors for his humanitarian work and the arts. He also helped organize Nelson Mandela‘s first trip to the U.S. after he was released from prison. He was accorded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1989 and the National Medal of the Arts in 1994.

Last year, the multifaceted performer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making him the oldest living person to join the organization.

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