June 16, 2023

He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with us throughout his life.

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Harry Belafonte was a legendary singer, actor, author, producer, and civil and human rights icon. The incomparable people’s champion was also a beloved 1199 Union brother. He passed away at 96 on April 25, at his home in New York City.

For nearly 70 years, he lent his voice and intellect to our struggles and many others. Moe Foner, the late 1199 public relations director and founder of the Bread and Roses Cultural Project (B&R), wrote about Belafonte performing for 1199ers in the early 1950s—before becoming a household name later in the decade.

The Harlem-born “Mr. B” (as he was affectionately known in his later years) is widely regarded as a key confidante of another iconic 1199 ally—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Belafonte was a major donor to Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and repeatedly provided funds to bail out King and other civil-rights activists from jail. He was also a major financial supporter of the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, which helped African-Americans register to vote.

As a principal architect of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he worked closely with 1199 and District 65, its sister union at the time. In a 2012 interview with 1199 magazine Our Life and Times, Belafonte stressed how his Jamaican-born mother, Melvine Love Bellanfanti, taught him to “stand up to oppression wherever you see it.”

He said that his relationship with 1199 helped him to heed that admonition. The members, he added, also reminded him of his humble roots. His mother was a seamstress and domestic, his father, Harold Sr.—also from the Caribbean—was a merchant marine and cook.

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“On every issue worth fighting for, 1199 has been there,” Belafonte declared at a 1979 sold-out Lincoln Center concert that helped launch B&R. “I have to be involved with 1199 as long as there is an 1199,” he said. The concert was his first New York City appearance in nearly 20 years, yet he refused to accept a fee.

Mr. B. supported movements for national liberation as well as for world peace and disarmament. He was a steadfast internationalist and anti-colonialist. Throughout South African leader Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, Belafonte lobbied for his release, exchanging letters with the anti-apartheid hero.

Among his many honors were three Grammys, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, a Tony Award, and the Kennedy Center Honor. Belafonte was also the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the BET Humanitarian Award, the NAACP Spingarn Medal and the Legal Defense Fund’s first Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award.

He was appointed a UNICEF (United Nation’s Children’s Fund) Goodwill Ambassador in 1987. On learning of Mr. B’s death, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres said, “Mr. Belafonte devoted his life fighting for human rights and against injustice in all its forms. He was a fearless campaigner for civil rights and a powerful voice in the struggle against Apartheid, the fight against AIDS and the quest to eradicate poverty.”

In 2011 at the age of 84, Belafonte assumed leadership of B&R. “The cultural journey we’re beginning is not about Harry Belafonte,” he stressed at the time. “It’s not about celebrity. It’s about the members. But we also have a greater mission—to reach into the cultural life of America and attract it into the labor movement. The arts and labor was, once upon a time, a marriage made in heaven that emerged during the Great Depression.”

Mr. B was instrumental in ensuring that marriage could thrive.

1199 Magazine: May / June 2023