The President’s Column: Farewell to our friend and comrade Harry Belafonte.June 16, 2023
May you rest in power.
When Harry Belafonte died on April 25, the world lost a giant among us, and our union lost one of its closest friends.
For the last 20 years of his life, “Mr. B,” as we 1199ers called him, housed his professional offices in our union’s New York City headquarters. But his unwavering support of 1199 dates back 60 years to the initial drive to organize the city’s hospitals—a campaign that was against the law at the time. He was an early supporter and activist in our Bread and Roses Cultural Program. And he was especially concerned about training and developing new generations of social-justice activists.
Mr. B. was one of those rare, true stars who put his fame and fortune on the line for social justice, and not just for a particular cause or one-time rally or demonstration. For him, it was a lifetime commitment and defined who he was. Bertholdt Brecht, the German playwright and poet whom Mr. B admired, wrote, “There are men that fight one day and are good, others fight one year and they're better, and there are those who fight many years and are very good, but there are the ones who fight their whole lives and those are the indispensable ones.” Mr. B was indispensable.
Before most of us were born, he became the first singer ever to have a record album sell a million copies. He was the first Black person to host a national television show (short-lived because the network and sponsors objected to his having Black and white performers on the same show). He and his good friend Sidney Poitier were the first Black leading men in Hollywood movies. His concerts sold out auditoriums around the world. He was in demand from Las Vegas to Carnegie Hall. He had all the fame, wealth and celebrity anyone could wish for.
But Harry Belafonte was a man of deep conscience and devotion t his people—Black people certainly, but also social and economic justice for all people. In the earliest days of the Montgomery bus boycott that brought a 27-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr to national attention, Mr. B befriended Dr. King and became one of his closest advisors and friends. The Belafonte apartment in New York became Dr. King’s NYC home. Mr. B became the go-to fundraiser for the civil rights revolution. When organizers were jailed, he bailed them out. He underwrote the budget of SNCC, the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee. He brought his organizing gifts and energies into building the famous 1963 March on Washington, and brought on board his friends Tony Bennett, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, among others.
From that point to the end of his days, Mr. B’s primary commitment and energies went to “the movement” rather than his career. The great Paul Robeson was his role model and mentor. In the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson, a Black former All-American football player, was perhaps the world’s best-known and celebrated actor and concert singer. But he was also a militant progressive and fighter for Black American freedom and African liberation. At the height of the Cold War, the State Department took away his passport and he was blacklisted from concert halls and recording studios, effectively destroying his career. But, among Black people, he was commonly called, “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest.”
When Belafonte was a young struggling actor, Robeson took him under his wing. Both men, great stars, refused to “stay in their lane.” Even after finally winning acceptance as Black performers in a racist society, the unwritten rule was, “You are here to entertain us, not tell us how to make a just society.” Decades later, Colin Kaepernick, one the NFL’s best quarterbacks, was blackballed for taking a knee against police violence, and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham hectored LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble” when he spoke up against cop killings of Black people. They are worthy travelers on the road paved by Paul Robeson and Mr. B.
So, Mr. B’s partnership with 1199 was natural. He was a lifelong partisan of unions and of the working class. He was forthright about criticizing some of today’s biggest stars for not using their fame and fortune to help build the social-justice movement. His entire life is a challenge to them, and to us. Let us all be worthy of the faith he had in us 1199ers. Rest in power, Mr. B.