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Remembering Civil Rights Icon Harry Belafonte

Mr. Belafonte's legacy is a testament to the power of using one's platform and resources to create positive change.
Alicia Maule
April 25, 2023

Today, we mourn the loss of Harry Belafonte, age 96, a Grammy-award winning musician, a Tony and Emmy-winning actor, and an activist who used his platform to promote social justice and support numerous philanthropic causes throughout his life. His contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and ending child incarceration will continue to inspire generations to come.

“Today, we celebrate the life of this inspirational individual whose dedication and passion have left a permanent mark on our world,” said Carmen Perez, President and CEO at The Gathering for Justice, the organization that Mr. Belafonte founded. 

“May we all carry on his legacy and strive to make a positive difference in our communities and beyond.”

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Born in Harlem in 1927 to West Indian parents, Belafonte grew up in poverty and experienced racism firsthand. These experiences shaped his worldview and ignited his passion for social justice. As he became more successful in his music career — including the timeless hit "Banana Boat Song", Mr. Belafonte used his platform to raise awareness and funds for various causes.

“The vote is perhaps the single most important weapon in our arsenal,” Mr. Belafonte told The New York Times in 2016.

“The same things needed now are the same things needed before. Movements don’t die because struggle doesn’t die.”

One of Belafonte's earliest philanthropic endeavors was his involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and helped finance the movement's activities. Mr. Belafonte also participated in various protests and was a key organizer of the March on Washington in 1963.

He was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa and helped organize the historic "We Are the World” recording in 1985, which raised over $63 million for famine relief in Africa. In 2015, Mr. Belafonte founded the Gathering for Justice, in 2005 after seeing news about the arrest and handcuffing of Jaiesha Scott, a 5-year-old Black girl, for allegedly displaying unruly behavior in her Florida classroom, an organization that seeks to end child incarceration, and the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library in Harlem.

His work with nonprofits has been just as significant as his activism. He served on the boards of various organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Peace Corps, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Mr. Belafonte was a generous donor, providing financial support to organizations such as the ACLU, the Children's Defense Fund, and the Harlem School of the Arts.

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Mr. Belafonte's legacy is a testament to the power of using one's platform and resources to create positive change. His activism and philanthropy have touched countless lives and inspired many to take action. Mr. Belafonte's commitment to social justice and his belief in the power of community serve as a reminder that we all have a role to play in creating a more just and equitable world.

Featured photo above: Press Briefing by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Harry Belafonte, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and legendary human rights activist and entertainer, meets with correspondents to discuss his recent visit to South Africa to examine first-hand that country's efforts to counteract the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS virus. 26/Jun/2001. UN Photo/Susan Markisz.