The coverage of the death at age 92 of the remarkable actress and singer Lena Horne has made mention of the fact that she appeared at A. Philip Randolph’s 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," standing near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech.
But Horne was no celebrity making a quick appearance before heading back to Hollywood or Broadway. Born 12 years before King, she grew up in a community where Randolph and other young socialist campaigners were making some of the first loud demands for racial justice. And she arrived at Washington on August 28, 1963, with a track record of activism—and sacrifice—that ran far deeper than most of the accounts of her passing have noted.
The granddaughter of Cora Calhoun Horne, a suffragist and prominent activist with W.E.B. Du Bois in the Niagara Movement that gave rise to the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People, Lena Horne was active in the NAACP virtually from birth. At the age of two, in 1919, she appeared on the cover of the NAACP’s monthly journal, The Crisis, which was edited by Du Bois. Already a movie star in 1943, the young Horne was dispatched to entertain troops for the USO. But, according to her Kennedy Center biography, she refused to perform “for segregated audiences or to groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen." She was, as well, outspoken when she met with prominent officials—including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—about the need to pass anti-lynching laws.
It was her grandmother who did the behind the scenes work that secured Paul Robeson a place at Rutgers University and Lena Horne and Robeson remained friends and allies for decades. In 1947, Lena Horne and Robeson were among the headliners—with former Vice President Henry Wallace—at the massive Progressive Citizens of America rally in Madison Square Garden, where leftists launched what was referred to as "the progressive counter-attack" against the post-war reassertion of segregation.
Such appearances earned Horne a reputation, she joked, as the "bad little Red girl." But even in the era of McCarthyism, when she stopped getting film offers, Horne continued her outspoken activism—and the singing career that would ultimately make her an international star. She did not complain or apologize, declaring that: "Whatever petitions I’ve signed or benefits I’ve played I’ve not done because I had any broad or deep political program I was pushing. I had just learned from my father and from my grandmother not to take any nonsense from anybody."
In the spring of 1963, before the March on Washington, Horne traveled the south with Medgar Evers and other civil rights campaigners, Indeed, she sang at a rally where Evers spoke in Jackson, Mississippi, just days before Evers was assassinated.
Following the killing of Evers, Horne joined Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, at a meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy where the leading artists and authors pressured the Kennedy administration to become more active in fighting to stop violence in the south and to end segregation.
After appearing at the March on Washington, Horne used her singing talents to raise money for the civil rights movement and other causes. At Carnegie Hall, where she raised $50,000 for the Gandhi Society for Human Rights with an October, 1963, benefit, Horne was introduced by Dr. King.
There will be many tributes to Lena Horne as a barrier-breaking entertainer and artist.
But it should always be remembered that she did not merely break down barriers for herself. Her commitment to the advancement of civil rights—and to economic and social justice causes—was big-spirited and unyielding, as Dr. King noted on that night 47 years ago, when he introduced her to the crowd at Carnegie Hall as a campaigner who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him in the struggle for "the attainment, through nonviolent means, of equality and full constitutional rights for all Americans."
To hear a terrific interview with Horne from 1966, visit the "Democracy Now" website, where Amy Goodman and her crew prepared a fine tribute to Lena Horne.