Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
Harry Belafonte, a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, used his celebrity as a beloved entertainer to garner funding for the movement. In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King said of Belafonte, “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open” (Scott King, 144–145).
Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York, to West Indian parents. As a child Belafonte suffered from dyslexia and left high school to join the U.S. Navy. Like most African Americans serving during World War II, Belafonte was relegated to manual labor.
After his tour of duty, Belafonte returned to New York City and worked odd jobs before beginning his acting career. He studied acting at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. After joining the American Negro Theater in Harlem, Belafonte met Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier, who became a lifelong friend.
Although best known for his success as a singer and actor, Belafonte continually used his public stature to advance the black freedom struggle. As one of the country’s most popular entertainers during the 1950s, Belafonte appeared with Coretta Scott King and Duke Ellington at the “Salute to Montgomery,” a December 1956 fundraising event in New York. While participating in the May 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C., Belafonte reportedly remarked to a friend: “We play a hit and run game up here. We come down here like this and say our piece and then it’s all over. But the Rev. Martin Luther King has to go back and face it all over again” (Papers 4:373n).
During the 1960s Belafonte continued to provide financial assistance to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, most notably during the Birmingham Campaign. In late March 1963, Belafonte invited prominent individuals to a meeting at his New York apartment, where King and Fred Shuttlesworth discussed plans for the Birmingham Campaign and appealed for financial support to be used primarily for bail money. Without hesitation, Belafonte organized a committee to raise funds for the movement. While King was held in a Birmingham jail, Belafonte raised $50,000, allowing the campaign to proceed.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Belafonte served as an executor of King’s estate and chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Fund. Afterward he continued to support national and international civil rights and humanitarian issues.