Those of us just eight years old back in 1956 didn’t know the amazing stats of Harry Belafonte’s sudden and smashing musical success. We didn’t know, for instance, that his record album entitled Calypso had become the first album by a single artist ever to sell over a million copies. But we did know Harry Belafonte. His music and voice seemed to be coming at us from everywhere.
“Day-o!” we kids would warble. “Daylight come and we want go home.”
Belafonte, unlike other stars of that era, never did “go home” and fade away. On Tuesday, right after his death, almost every major U.S. media outlet immediately began running glowing appreciations of his long and remarkable career. The obituaries all saluted his artistry and his commitment to social justice.
From the late 1950s onward, as the New York Times obit would note, Belafonte would be far more than a superstar. Year after year, he put “his primary focus” on “civil rights,” the “quest for racial equality,” doing everything from bailing out jailed activists to helping organize the landmark 1963 March on Washington.
But both Belafonte and his close friend Martin Luther King Jr saw their civil rights advocacy as the cutting edge of a still broader struggle for equality. At one activist gathering in Belafonte’s New York apartment, his memoir My Song would later relate, the assembled activists heard Dr. King give that broader struggle an evocative frame.
“I’ve come to believe,” the Rev. Dr. King told the group, “that we are integrating into a burning house.”
Given that reality, Belafonte asked King, what should activists be doing? King’s reply: “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”
And that meant confronting what King would call the interrelated “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation, and war. The civil rights movement, he told the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention, “must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society” because any society that “produces beggars needs restructuring.”
This restructuring, King stressed, would require asking questions about our economic system, about what we can do to create “a broader distribution of wealth.” Harry Belafonte would help raise those questions at every opportunity, never more cogently than in an interview he gave the music industry’s Billboard magazine in 2020.
“America has more money than any other single country or civilization has ever been able to amass,” Belafonte observed. “We have the most powerful army in the world.”
“How is it in contrast to that we also have the largest prison population in the world?” he went on. “How is it that we have so much unemployment? How is that we have so much need in education?”
Who, Belafonte would ask, is getting all the money that abounds in our “great nation”? We must insist, he answered, on more than “an accounting.” We need to “redistribute how wealth is given to the people who have done so much to earn that wealth.”
That redistribution will require, Belafonte had earlier told a Ford Foundation conference, more than begging philanthropies for help. Belafonte, as columnist Charles Blow points out, saw philanthropy —and its failure to fund the “real change makers” — as “a big part of the problem.”
Belafonte had equal scorn for those from communities in need who “surrendered to greed” and “ran off to the feast of Wall Street and big business.” And still more scorn for those elected into office who accepted our deeply unequal core realities and “suffocated radical thinking.”
Let us all smile when we remember Harry Belafonte’s wondrous art. Let us, even more importantly, take inspiration from his life-long struggle for a more equal tomorrow.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Twitter: @Too_Much_Online.