Harry Belafonte was a renowned social activist, artist, and actor whose exemplary work as a humanitarian and civil rights activist made an indelible mark on the world. Belafonte died at his home in Manhattan, New York on April 25, 2023. He was 96 years old.
“We mourn the death of the civil and human rights icon and renowned artist, Harry Belafonte, and extend our deepest condolences to his loved ones … Mr. Belafonte utilized his trans-continental experience and the severe discrimination he faced as a child to fuel a passion for inspiring change around the world — most notably through working to advance racial equality in the United States and protect human rights around the globe,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai S. Nelson in a statement following Mr. Belafonte’s passing. “For Mr. Belafonte, who emphasized that he ‘was an activist that became an artist, not an artist that became an activist,’ the inspiration for his work came with ease. The magnitude of his life, and this loss, cannot be overstated. Mr. Belafonte demonstrated how, without fear and compromise, people can use their platforms for good. He will be missed, and his ineffaceable legacy will leave a resounding impact on the minds, hearts, and lives of generations to come.”
Known as Harry Belafonte, Harry Bellanfanti Jr. was born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem, New York to Harold and Melvine Bellanfanti, both West-Indian immigrants. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood alongside his brother, Dennis, Belafonte faced severe discrimination and hate. He cited these experiences and his mother’s nurturement and care, as well as her own commitment to challenging injustices, as a source of inspiration for becoming a lifelong activist and champion of human rights.
“In my earliest of years, I was counseled on that path by my mother and I went to many Marcus Garvey rallies with her, and I saw her passion about justice and all of that rubbed off on me,” Belafonte recalled during an interview with LDF in 2019. “And here I am.”
In 1936, Belafonte and his brother moved to Kingston, Jamaica with their mother. As Belafonte recalled in his 2011 memoir “My Song,” though he struggled to adapt to the new environment, the young Belafonte would become immersed in the capital’s culture and lifestyle. Most saliently, his time in Kingston would spark his interest in calypso music. The warm, distinct melodies of the singers throughout the city that resonated with him would later account for his launch into the genre. Belafonte moved back to Harlem at 13 years old.
In 1944, as a student at George Washington High School in the Bronx, Belafonte enlisted in the Navy. He was sent to the Naval Station Great Lakes to join a segregated training camp, where he was struck by the sheer diversity of his all-Black crew, men who hailed from around the nation and who brought with them varying perspectives. Introduced to political pamphlets and the works of W.E.B. DuBois and other Black authors by his crewmates, Belafonte also took part in stimulating conversations about civil rights. These discussions would expand his perspective and reaffirm his passion for fighting for justice.
Following Belafonte’s honorable discharge from the service, he returned to New York. Belafonte’s interest in acting was sparked at the American Negro Theater, a segregated theater in Manhattan, where he received two free tickets to a play. Belafonte soon began to gain acting experience, going from being an extra stagehand to landing a role in his first play. Soon after, he enrolled in a drama workshop at the New School for Social Research on 12th Street. There, he began reading and studying literature that complemented his newly-found passion for the arts. In 1949, he landed his first singing contract.
Throughout his life, Belafonte tied his passion for music and social activism together. In the 1950s, he participated in the civil rights movement, becoming an integral figure in the cause. With an unwavering commitment to advancing racial justice, Mr. Belafonte became deeply involved with the NAACP. Traveling around the South and the nation, he supported grassroots organizers and activists, providing them with supplies and resources.
“The bulk of his work is unheralded,” actor and activist Jesse Williams said during his reflection on Belafonte in LDF’s 2019 video honoring him. “He’s undergirding the civil rights movement as we know it — driving himself down South, him actually dropping off bags, him spending time with Eleanor Roosevelt, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to in prison — wherever he needs to be.”
Always vocal, Belafonte found inspiration for his advocacy efforts through figures such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. In forming a friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Belafonte became an instrumental figure in supporting him and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Belafonte attended numerous protests and rallies, and was present with Dr. King when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C.
Belafonte reflected on his close relationship with Dr. King during the civil rights movement in his 2011 memoir, “My Song,” writing: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ As Martin knew, there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither politic nor popular, because conscience tells him he must.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Belafonte also played an instrumental role as a member of LDF’s “Committee of 100”, a cooperative of individuals tasked to support the organization’s operations and development.
Within his music, Belafonte sang melodies of justice and freedom. His songs and albums, including “Banana Boat” and “Paradise in Gazankulu,” demonstrated his inclination for intertwining his multicultural ties with meaningful narrative, which resonated with crowds.
“In all my music, I rooted it in the conditions of Black history,” Belafonte told LDF in a 2019 interview. “‘Banana Boat’ wasn’t just a song that delighted people. If they dug deeply enough into the lyrics of that song, it’s a song of great power and protest from the Black voice.”
Referring to the arts as “the greatest liberator of Black people,” Belafonte often collaborated with and uplifted the work of other Black artists. Notably, Belafonte met South African singer and activist Mariam Makeba in 1958, partnering with Makeba many times, including on the Grammy Award-winning 1965 album, “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba.” Through Makeba’s experience as an exiled citizen of South Africa, Mr. Belafonte used his music to bring attention to life under apartheid in South Africa.
“My activism always existed. My art gave me the platform to do something about the activism,” Belafonte once said during an interview.
During the 1980s, Mr. Belafonte joined forces with Nelson Mandela in South Africa. For many years, Belafonte fought against apartheid, exchanging letters with Mandela while he was imprisoned and calling for his release. Belafonte was also a key figure in forming USA for Africa, an organization he aided in raising $50 million for hunger prevention. Belafonte, among other musicians, helped perform “We Are the World,” a song released in 1985 that became a massive hit, raising millions of dollars. Later, in 1987, Belafonte was appointed as a goodwill ambassador at UNICEF. In this role, he traveled to Dakar, Senegal, and served as a chairman for the International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children.
In 1993, Belafonte and his longtime friend, Sydney Poitier, were awarded LDF’s first Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Awards. The honor recognized the two men for their significant contributions to the causes of civil rights and racial justice.
Belafonte also supported the formation and development of LDF’s National Equal Justice Awards Dinner, serving as an honorary committee member in 2006.
In 2013, Belafonte founded Sankofa, a civil-rights organization dedicated to addressing injustices by supporting artists and allies in making change. That year, Belafonte accepted the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor.
“America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such quest,” Belafonte said in his acceptance speech.
In 2019, Belafonte was awarded the Spirit of Justice award by LDF, accepted by Cicely Tyson, in recognition of his enduring commitment to achieving justice for all. The honor commemorated Belafonte’s revolutionary civil rights work throughout his lifetime.
Belafonte is survived by his wife, Pamela Frank; his four children, Adrienne, Shari, David, and Gina; and his grandchildren. LDF sends its deepest condolences to Belafonte’s family and loved ones as they grieve this profound loss.
Belafonte will always be remembered for his tireless dedication to others, his reverberating impact on advancing racial justice, and for the use of his platform to uplift human and civil rights around the world. In considering the influential legacy Belafonte leaves behind, we reflect on his words: “Each and every one of you has the power, the will, and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which you live.”