the cruelties visited upon him by the power of the State stands as a great blemish on the pages of American history. But despite the attempt to wipe him from memory, he has endured and continues to influence. It speaks to our most strategic interests that African American children be instructed about the truth of his existence. Indeed it would be in the best interest of all Americans to know what this great patriot offered this nation.
Amid all the celebrations of Belafonte’s activism and art in the wake of his death on Tuesday at age 96, it is vital to remember his remarkable commitment to keeping alive the memory and legacy of Robeson and the other radicals who were targeted by the Red Scare blacklist that briefly threatened to derail Belafonte’s own career.
As a young World War II veteran making his way in the Off-Broadway theater scene of the late 1940s, Belafonte aligned with Robeson, a brilliant actor and singer who was one of the period’s most prominent advocates for civil rights and radical causes. Belafonte shared Robeson’s radicalism. They supported the 1948 presidential campaign of former vice president Henry Wallace on the ticket of the proudly left-wing Progressive Party, which challenged Jim Crow racism and sought to avert the Cold War. When I was researching my book on Wallace’s legacy, Robeson and Belafonte came up constantly, and for good reason.
In one of the many powerful interviews Belafonte gave on his political journey, he told PBS in 1998 about his early appearances with Robeson on political stages:
“And the most important being by 1948, when we decided that America needed another alternative to the ones they were already given, Republicans and Democrats. Republicans and Democrats were wholly unsatisfactory to the needs of the of the future of this country. No one spoke for the suffering underclass. No one spoke for black hopes and aspirations. No one spoke up against the racist laws that existed with any effectiveness who was aspiring to office. So we had to create a new forum. And in creating the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace [running for president] and Glenn Taylor running for vice president, [Wallace’s campaign] gave a lot of us a place around which to rally, a place around which to articulate our grievances, a place around which to do analysis and to do outreach.
“And central to this mobilization was Paul Robeson. He was at any number of these rallies nationally helping to build the Progressive Party to help build a new voice of reason and of hope in our community and on that platform was where he and I shared individual moments, singing for a cause.”
Backing Wallace was a radical act. The 1948 campaign attracted support from civil rights campaigners, labor activists, socialists, and communists. Belafonte and the vast majority of Wallace backers were not members of the American Communist Party. But Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and his allies—many of them Southern segregationists—quickly made Wallace supporters a focus of the “American inquisition” of the 1950s. Robeson was barred from the stages and the broadcast programs that once welcomed him. The State Department revoked his passport because, he was told, they believed “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries.”
Belafonte, who was eventually targeted as well, would later recall that the “level of intensity in our relationship” reached
“another level when I, too, became a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. I had been severely attacked by vigilante groups who existed unofficially. Most of them were secret societies that compile and put lists together and recklessly gave them out to places that were intimidated by these lists. And they caused huge mischief and great pain to many of the citizens of this country.
“Here I was a young African-American at the very threshold of his career on an ascendancy—having begun the earliest ripples of public approval—developing an audience that came to embrace my platform with some passion and some sense of purpose and reason. Everything I was doing seemed to have been graced with some form of success. My record had just come out and was doing very well. My first time in a Broadway play, John Murray Anderson’s Almanack. I received the Tony Award, the highest honor in the theater. Places were asking me to come and perform that traditionally had never had Black artists or Black people on their roster or in their program….
“While all of this was going on and while the walls of segregation were being severely challenged, opportunities were opening up [for] speaking out politically and socially to galvanize and encourage those voices of dissent and voices of exchange on a host of subjects, the House Un-American Activities Committee came after me. I was blacklisted and in an instant was finding it very difficult to find work. And here I was now beginning to encroach upon the same experiences that my mentor had been suffering for these many years.”
Like Robeson, Belafonte refused to cooperate with investigators. But he got a break. When he was booked to appear on CBS’s popular Ed Sullivan Show in 1954, Sullivan was alerted that Belafonte’s name was on one of the many Hollywood blacklists that were developed to silence left-wing artists. Sullivan met with the young singer and read from a list of radical associations and appearances that Belafonte’s accusers had compiled.
There was no bigger showcase for a singer than Sullivan’s program. The blacklist was at its height. Belafonte had every incentive to renounce his own history. But, as he recounted to PBS, he made a different choice:
“I said, there’s really nothing here to debate, Mr. Sullivan. Everything on that list, I have done. And there’s a lot of things that’s not on that list that should be on that list that I have done and will continue to do. If, as an American and as a human being, I lend my energy and my time to end hate, to end racism, to look for a better day for all of us, to look to that America, which was defended by Lincoln, and that had been created by the founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and others, I think that I stand guilty of moving in that cadence. That’s what I’m being charged with, and I stand guilty. And the choice between giving up that commitment for the privilege of being on your program doesn’t equate. I’d love to have had a chance to sing to the American people to have your platform. But, hey, I guess you can’t have it all. Thank you. And I walked.”
Sullivan decided to go ahead with the booking. Belafonte appeared on the show that week, and frequently through the 1950s. He became one of the most dominant cultural figures of the age.
Belafonte had many opportunities to cover his tracks and distance himself from Robeson and the radical politics of his youth. He never did. Instead, he championed Robeson until the great man died in 1976, and across the ensuing five decades. More than that, though, he maintained his revolutionary spirit in a way that Robeson would have admired, embedding himself deeply in the civil rights movement, working to liberate South Africa from apartheid, opposing imperialism, and supporting human rights struggles around the world. Having beaten the blacklist and what he described as “the villainy of the witch hunt,” Harry Belafonte lived a radical life that never denied and never forgot the lessons he learned while standing at the side of Paul Robeson.