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Harry Belafonte, groundbreaking singer and actor; civil rights activist, dies at 96

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Posted at 9:11 AM, Apr 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-25 14:42:10-04

NEW YORK (AP) — Harry Belafonte, the civil rights and entertainment giant who began as a groundbreaking actor and singer and became an activist, humanitarian and conscience of the world, has died. He was 96.

Belafonte died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his New York home, his wife Pamela by his side, said Paula M. Witt, of public relations firm Sunshine Sachs Morgan & Lylis.

With his glowing, handsome face and silky-husky voice, Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to gain a wide following on film and to sell a million records as a singer; many still know him for his signature hit “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and its call of “Day-O! Daaaaay-O.” But he forged a greater legacy once he scaled back his performing career in the 1960s and lived out his hero Paul Robeson’s decree that artists are “gatekeepers of truth.”

He stands as the model and the epitome of the celebrity activist. Few kept up with Belafonte’s time and commitment and none his stature as a meeting point among Hollywood, Washington and the civil rights movement.

Belafonte not only participated in protest marches and benefit concerts, but helped organize and raise support for them. He worked closely with his friend and generational peer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., often intervening on his behalf with both politicians and fellow entertainers and helping him financially. He risked his life and livelihood and set high standards for younger Black celebrities, scolding Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their “social responsibilities,” and mentoring Usher, Common, Danny Glover and many others. In Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman,” he was fittingly cast as an elder statesman schooling young activists about the country’s past.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) issued the following statement in response to the death of Harry Belafonte, Jr., award-winning singer, actor, and civil rights activist.

“Harry Belafonte was a passionate civil rights icon whose contributions through the arts continue to inspire our fight for the freedom and liberation of Black and Brown people today. A strong supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Belafonte used his celebrity to quietly underwrite the civil rights movement. When necessary, he solicited famous friends and even financed the movement himself — paying bail money and hospital bills and organizing a committee that raised $50,000 to continue the Birmingham Campaign after Dr. King’s arrest.

“Belafonte’s activism extended beyond the United States as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from jail, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.

“The SPLC mourns the passing of Harry Belafonte, Jr., the epitome of a servant leader with an unwavering commitment to social justice worldwide.

“Our hearts are with Mr. Belafonte’s family and loved ones. In his honor, we will continue the march toward equity, justice, and liberation for all.”