Harry Belafonte—Giant of the arts and the struggle for justice and democracy / by Special to the People’s world

Harry Belafonte speaks during a civil rights rally in New York, May 17, 1960. | Jacob Harris / AP

Posted in the People’s World on April 26, 2023

The multi-talented, widely admired performer Harry Belafonte died Tuesday, April 25, at age 96. He was born on March 1, 1927, in New York City as Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr. His ancestry is Jamaican and Martiniquan, and his paternal grandfather had Dutch Jewish origins.

Belafonte’s career took off with the film Carmen Jones (1954). Soon after, he had several hits, such as “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” In addition to his acting and singing career, Belafonte worked as a champion for many social and political causes.

The oldest son of Caribbean immigrants, Harry Belafonte spent his early years in New York. His mother worked as a dressmaker and a house cleaner, and his father served as a cook in the British Royal Navy. When Belafonte was a young child, his parents divorced and he was sent to Jamaica, his mother’s native country, to live with relatives. There, he saw firsthand the oppression of Black Jamaicans by the British colonial authorities.

Belafonte returned to New York’s Harlem neighborhood in 1939 to live with his mother and was often cared for by others while his mother worked. “The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid,” he once told People magazine. “My mother gave me affection, but because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish.”

Belafonte on set. | AP

Dropping out of high school, Belafonte enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944, serving in the Pacific at the end of World War II. After the war, he returned to New York, working a series of odd jobs. But after attending a performance of the American Negro Theater, he found his career inspiration.

He studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop run by famed German émigré director Erwin Piscator. His classmates included Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Sidney Poitier, and Rod Steiger. Belafonte appeared in numerous American Negro Theater productions but caught his first big break singing for a class project. Offered a chance to perform at a jazz club, the Royal Roost, backed by such musicians as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Belafonte became a popular act. In 1949, he landed his first recording deal.

Soon, Belafonte switched his musical style, dropping popular music in favor of folk. He became an avid student of traditional folk songs from around the world and started appearing in such New York City folk clubs as the Village Vanguard.

Debuting on Broadway in 1953, Belafonte won a Tony Award for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, in which he performed several of his own songs.

On film, Belafonte played a school principal opposite Dorothy Dandridge in his first movie, Bright Road (1953). They reunited the following year for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II’s contemporary, African-American Broadway version of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Belafonte received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Joe, a soldier who falls for the title character, played by Dandridge.

The success of Carmen Jones made Belafonte a star, and soon he became a music sensation. He released Calypso (1956) on RCA Victor, an album featuring his take on traditional Caribbean folk music. “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” became a huge hit. More than just a popular tune, it also had a special meaning for Belafonte. “That song is a way of life,” Belafonte later told The New York Times. “It’s a song about my father, my mother, my uncles, the men and women who toil in the banana fields, the cane fields of Jamaica.”

Calypso introduced America to a new genre of music, selling more than a million copies. As the “King of Calypso,” Belafonte also worked with other folk artists, including Bob Dylan and Odetta.

Belafonte also broke ground as the first African-American television producer, working on numerous musical shows. In the early 1970s, he teamed up with singer Lena Horne for a one-hour special.

By the mid-1970s, Belafonte was no longer hitting the charts, but continued his film career with 1972’s Buck and the Preacher and 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night. Later films include White Man’s Burden (1995), with John Travolta, and Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996). He also appeared in 2006’s Bobby, a film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. On television, he appeared on The Muppet Show and with Marlo Thomas on the 1974 children’s special Free To Be. . .You and Me.

The social activist

Belafonte enjoys a laugh with his friend, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. | Harry Belafonte Archives

Always outspoken, Belafonte found inspiration for his activism from such figures as singer Paul Robeson, writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom Belafonte became close friends.

Belafonte emerged as a strong voice for the civil rights movement. He provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in numerous rallies and protests. Belafonte was with King for the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and visited with him days before King was assassinated in 1968.

During the mid-1960s, as the movement against colonialism expanded around the globe, Belafonte began supporting new African artists. He first met exiled South African artist Miriam Makeba, known as “Mama Africa,” in London in 1958, and together they won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording in 1966. He helped introduce her to international and American audiences, thus calling attention to life under South African apartheid.

In the 1980s, Belafonte led an effort to help people in Africa, coming up with the idea of recording a song with other celebrities, to be sold to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, “We Are the World” featured vocals by such music greats as Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, and Smokey Robinson. Released in 1985, it raised millions of dollars and became an international sensation.

Belafonte was a long-time critic of U.S. foreign policy. At various times over the decades, he made statements opposing the U.S. blockade of Cuba, praising Soviet peace initiatives, attacking the U.S. invasion of Grenada, praising the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, honoring Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and praising Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro and Belafonte cultivated a very close friendship over the years. | Pedro Beruvides / Courtesy of Granma

Belafonte’s visit to Cuba helped ensure hip-hop culture’s place in Cuban society. In 1999, he met with Cuban rappers just before a meeting with Castro. Subsequently, the Cuban government approved funds to help integrate rap music into the country’s musical culture. Rappers gained official recognition and acquired their own recording studio.

Over the years, Belafonte supported many other internationalist solidarity causes as well. In addition to his role as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he campaigned to end apartheid in South Africa and spoke out against U.S. military actions in Iraq. He met several times with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He also acted as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues.

Belafonte earned censure in some quarters for his candid opinions. In 2006, he referred to President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” for launching the Iraq War. He also insulted African-American members of the Bush administration Gen. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, referring to them as “house slaves.” Rejecting media pressure, he steadfastly refused to apologize for his remarks. In regards to Powell and Rice, Belafonte said, “You are serving those who continue to design our oppression.”

Reminded that he could expect criticism for his remarks on politics, Belafonte responded: “Bring it on. Dissent is central to any democracy.”

Remained a force for progress

Harry Belafonte showed down during his tenth decade. In 2016, he endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Primary, saying, “I think he represents opportunity, I think he represents a moral imperative, I think he represents a certain kind of truth that’s not often evidenced in the course of politics.”

Belafonte with Angela Davis at an event of the Left Labor Project in New York City, 2012. | Thomas Altfather Good / People’s World

He produced a new album promoting racial harmony in 2017, When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte. It included a new version of “Island in the Sun” with a children’s choir, which he co-wrote for the 1957 film of the same name. “The differences that exist between us should be things that attract us to one another, not alienate us from one another,” Belafonte said when the album was released.

Belafonte was an honorary chair of the Jan. 21, 2017, Women’s March in Washington.

In February of that year, he joined a number of Palestinian groups and renowned figures such as Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Danny Glover, as well as athlete-activists John Carlos, Craig Hodges, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, signing an open letter urging NFL players to reconsider an invitation to Israel as part of an effort to get them to “become ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.”

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Belafonte was an outspoken opponent of Donald Trump. He authored a powerful article in the New York Times just before the 2020 vote in which he urged Black voters to pay close attention to what Trump “says when he is ‘alone in the room’ with his white supporters, promising them at his rallies that if he is re-elected, people of color will not invade their ‘beautiful suburbs’ from our ‘disgusting cities.’”

Answering Republican claims that Trump could win Black votes, Belafonte said that African Americans would “not be bought off by the empty promises of the flimflam man.”

Among his many achievements and recognitions, Belafonte won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. In 1989 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994.

“Art,” said Belafonte: “There’s nothing more powerful in the universe than it, because it is the recorder of the truth.” Speaking of himself, Belafonte said he was “an activist who became an artist: I was not an artist who became an activist.”

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.

On the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois / by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, left, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. | Public Domain

Below is one of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s least-known speeches. It is one of those, along with his Vietnam speech, that the capitalist ruling class does not want anybody to remember. What follows is the text of his Carnegie Hall Tribute to Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, delivered on Feb. 23, 1968, the the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth. King gave the address only weeks before being assassinated in Memphis. The Du Bois tribute event was sponsored by Freedomways magazine, which J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had denounced and harassed as a “Communist front” publication. With great eloquence, King tells the story of Du Bois and his importance to all people, and he also answers the anti-communist redbaiters of the day.

Honoring Dr. DuBois

Tonight, we assemble here to pay tribute to one of the most remarkable men of our time. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was not only an intellectual giant exploring the frontiers of knowledge, he was in the first place a teacher. He would have wanted his life to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation.

One idea he insistently taught was that Black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies that depicted them as inferior, born deficient, and deservedly doomed to servitude to the grave. So assiduously has this poison been injected into the mind of America that its disease has infected not only whites but many Negroes.

So long as the lie was believed, the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear. The twisted logic ran if the Black man was inferior then he was not oppressed—his place in society was appropriate to his meager talent and intellect.

Dr. Du Bois recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression was the myth of inferiority, and he dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish it. There could scarcely be a more suitable person for such a monumental task. First of all, he was himself unsurpassed as an intellect, and he was a Negro. But beyond this, he was passionately proud to be Black, and finally he had not only genius and pride, but he had the indomitable fighting spirit of the valiant.

To pursue his mission, Dr. Du Bois gave up the substantial privileges a highly educated Negro enjoyed living in the North. Though he held degrees from Harvard and the University of Berlin, though he had more academic credentials than most Americans, Black or white, he moved South, where a majority of Negroes then lived. He deliberately chose to share their daily abuse and humiliation.

He could have offered himself to the white rulers and exacted substantial tribute for selling his genius. There were few like him, Negro or white. He could have amassed riches and honors and lived in material splendor and applause from the powerful and important men of his time. Instead, he lived part of his creative life in the South—most of it in modest means and some of it in poverty, and he died in exile, praised sparingly and in many circles ignored.

But he was an exile only to the land of his birth. He died at home in Africa among his cherished ancestors, and he was ignored by a pathetically ignorant America but not by history.

History cannot ignore W.E.B. Du Bois—because history has to reflect truth, and Dr. Du Bois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the Black man, and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded discloses the great dimensions of the man.

Yet he had more than a void to fill. He had to deal with the army of white propagandists—the myth-makers of Negro history. Dr. Du Bois took them all on in battle. It would be impossible to sketch the whole range of his intellectual contributions. Back in the 19th century, he laid out a program of 100 years of study of problems affecting American Negroes and worked tirelessly to implement it.

Long before sociology was a science, he was pioneering in the field of social study of Negro life and completed works on health, education, employment, urban conditions, and religion. This was at a time when scientific inquiry of Negro life was so unbelievably neglected that only a single university in the entire nation had such a program, and it was funded with $5,000 for a year’s work.

Against such odds, Dr. Du Bois produced two enduring classics before the 20th century. His Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, written in 1896, is Volume I in the Harvard Historical Studies. His study The Philadelphia Negro, completed in 1899, is still used today. Illustrating the painstaking quality of his scientific method, to do this work Dr. Du Bois personally visited and interviewed 5,000 people.

He soon realized that studies would never adequately be pursued nor changes realized without the mass involvement of Negroes. The scholar then became an organizer and, together with others, founded the NAACP. At the same time, he became aware that the expansion of imperialism was a threat to the emergence of Africa. He recognized the importance of the bonds between American Negroes and the land of their ancestors, and he extended his activities to African affairs. After World War I, he called Pan-African Congresses in 1919, 1921, and 1923, alarming imperialists in all countries and disconcerting Negro moderates in America who were afraid of this restless, militant, Black genius.

Important historical works by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois are available from International Publishers.

Returning to the United States from abroad, he found his pioneering agitation for Negro studies was bearing fruit, and a beginning was made to broaden Negro higher education. He threw himself into the task of raising the intellectual level of this work. Much later, in 1940, he participated in the establishment of the first Negro scholarly publication, Phylon. At the same time, he stimulated Negro colleges to collaborate through annual conferences to increase their effectiveness and elevate the quality of their academic studies.

But these activities, enough to be the life work for ten men, were far from the sum of his achievements. In the six years between 1935 and 1941, he produced the monumental 700-page volume on Black Reconstruction in America, at the same time writing many articles and essays.

Black Reconstruction was six years in writing but was 33 years in preparation. On its publication, one critic said: “It crowns the long, unselfish, and brilliant career of Dr. Du Bois. It is comparable in clarity, originality, and importance to Charles Beard’s Rise of American Civilization.” The New York Times said, “It is beyond question the most painstaking and thorough study ever made of the Negroes’ part in Reconstruction,” and the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed it “a solid history of the period, an economic treatise, a philosophical discussion, a poem, a work of art all rolled into one.”

To understand why his study of the Reconstruction was a monumental achievement, it is necessary to see it in context. White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history, and the stakes were high. The Reconstruction was a period in which Black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant, their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings.

One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods, and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths.

History taught him it is not enough for people to be angry—the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.

Dr. DuBois confronted this powerful structure of historical distortion and dismantled it. He virtually, before anyone else and more than anyone else, demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history. The truths he revealed are not yet the property of all Americans, but they have been recorded and arm us for our contemporary battles.

In Black Reconstruction, Dr. DuBois dealt with the almost universally accepted concept that civilization virtually collapsed in the South during Reconstruction because Negroes had a measure of political power. Dr. DuBois marshalled irrefutable evidence that, far from collapsing, the Southern economy was recovering in these years. Within five years, the cotton crop had been restored, and in the succeeding five years had exceeded pre-war levels. At the same time, other economic activity had ascended so rapidly that the rebirth of the South was almost completed.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, then co-chairman of the U.S. delegation, addresses the World Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris, April 22, 1949. | AP

Beyond this, he restored to light the most luminous achievement of the Reconstruction—it brought free public education into existence not only for the benefit of the Negro, but it opened school doors to the poor whites. He documented the substantial body of legislation that was socially so useful it was retained into the 20th century even though the Negroes who helped to write it were brutally disenfranchised and driven from political life.

He revealed that, far from being the tragic era white historians described, it was the only period in which democracy existed in the South. This stunning fact was the reason the history books had to lie because to tell the truth would have acknowledged the Negroes’ capacity to govern and fitness to build a finer nation in a creative relationship with poor whites.

With the completion of his book Black Reconstruction, despite its towering contributions, despite his advanced age, Dr. DuBois was still not ready to accept a deserved rest in peaceful retirement. His dedication to freedom drove him on as relentlessly in his seventies as it did in his twenties. He had already encompassed three careers. Beginning as a pioneer sociologist, he had become an activist to further mass organization. The activist had then transformed himself into an historian.

By the middle of the 20th century, when imperialism and war arose once more to imperil humanity, he became a peace leader. He served as chairman of the Peace Information Bureau and, like the Rev. William Sloane Coffin and Dr. Benjamin Spock of today, he found himself indicted by the government and harried by reactionaries. Undaunted by obstacles and repression, with his characteristic fortitude he fought on.

Finally, in 1961, with Ghana’s independence established, an opportunity opened to begin the writing of an African Encyclopedia, and in his 93rd year, he emigrated to Ghana to begin new intellectual labors. In 1963, death finally came to this most remarkable man.

Dr. Du Bois saw that Negroes were robbed of so many things decisive to their existence that the theft of their history seemed only a small part of their losses. But Dr. he knew that to lose one’s history is to lose one’s self-understanding and, with it, the roots for pride.

It is axiomatic that he will be remembered for his scholarly contributions and organizational attainments. These monuments are imperishable. But there were human qualities less immediately visible that are no less imperishable.

Dr. DuBois was a man possessed of priceless dedication to his people. The vast accumulation of achievement and public recognition were not for him pathways to personal affluence and a diffusion of identity. Whatever else he was, with his multitude of careers and professional titles, he was first and always a Black man.

He used his richness of talent as a trust for his people. He saw that Negroes were robbed of so many things decisive to their existence that the theft of their history seemed only a small part of their losses. But Dr. DuBois knew that to lose one’s history is to lose one’s self-understanding and, with it, the roots for pride. This drove him to become a historian of Negro life, and the combination of his unique zeal and intellect rescued for all of us a heritage whose loss would have profoundly impoverished us.

Dr. DuBois the man needs to be remembered today when despair is all too prevalent. In the years he lived and fought, there was far more justification for frustration and hopelessness, and yet his faith in his people never wavered. His love and faith in Negroes permeate every sentence of his writings and every act of his life. Without these deeply rooted emotions his work would have been arid and abstract. With them, his deeds were a passionate storm that swept the filth of falsehood from the pages of established history.

W.E.B. DuBois’ letter applying for membership in the Communist Party and Gus Hall’s response to him were made public for the first time in the pages of ‘The Worker’ newspaper on Nov. 26, 1961. | People’s World Archives

He symbolized in his being his pride in the Black man. He did not apologize for being Black and, because of it, handicapped. Instead, he attacked the oppressor for the crime of stunting Black men. He confronted the establishment as a model of militant manhood and integrity. He defied them, and, though they heaped venom and scorn on him, his powerful voice was never stilled.

And yet, with all his pride and spirit he did not make a mystique out of Blackness. He was proud of his people, not because their color endowed them with some vague greatness but because their concrete achievements in struggle had advanced humanity, and he saw and loved progressive humanity in all its hues, Black, white, yellow, red, and brown.

Above all he, did not content himself with hurling invectives for emotional release and then retire into smug, passive satisfaction. History had taught him it is not enough for people to be angry—the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.

It was never possible to know where the scholar Du Bois ended and the organizer DuBois began. The two qualities in him were a single, unified force. This lifestyle of Dr. DuBois is the most important quality this generation of Negroes needs to emulate.

The educated Negro who is not really part of us and the angry militant who fails to organize us have nothing in common with Dr. DuBois. He exemplified Black power in achievement, and he organized Black power in action. It was no abstract slogan to him.

We cannot talk of Dr. DuBois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely.

In contemporary life, the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the 20th century and a Communist, or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. DuBois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.

In closing, it would be well to remind white America of its debt to Dr. DuBois. When they corrupted Negro history, they distorted American history, because Negroes are too big a part of the building of this nation to be written out of it without destroying scientific history. White America, drenched with lies about Negroes, has lived too long in a fog of ignorance. Dr. DuBois gave them a gift of truth for which they should eternally be indebted to him.

We cannot talk of Dr. DuBois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years.

Negroes have heavy tasks today. We were partially liberated and then re-enslaved. We have to fight again on old battlefields, but our confidence is greater, our vision is clearer, and our ultimate victory surer because of the contributions a militant, passionate Black giant left behind him.

Dr. DuBois has left us, but he has not died. The spirit of freedom is not buried in the grave of the valiant. He will be with us when we go to Washington in April to demand our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We have to go to Washington because they have declared an armistice in the war on poverty while squandering billions to expand a senseless, cruel, unjust war in Vietnam. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until the administration responds.

If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we will embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois attend the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square in the Soviet Union, May 1, 1959. | University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Dr. DuBois would be in the front ranks of the peace movement today. He would readily see the parallel between American support of the corrupt and despised Thieu-Ky regime and Northern support to the Southern slave masters in 1876. The CIA scarcely exaggerates, indeed it is surprisingly honest, when it calculates for Congress that the war in Vietnam can persist for one hundred years. People deprived of their freedom do not give up—Negroes have been fighting more than a hundred years, and even if the date of full emancipation is uncertain, what is explicitly certain is that the struggle for it will endure.

In conclusion, let me say that Dr. DuBois’ greatest virtue was his committed empathy with all the oppressed and his divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice. Today, we are still challenged to be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, freedom and human dignity for his spirit. Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent, sanitary house in which to live.

Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. Let us be dissatisfied until brotherhood is no longer a meaningless word at the end of a prayer but the first order of business on every legislative agenda.

Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World—Asia, Africa, and Latin America—will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy, and disease.

Let us be dissatisfied until this pending cosmic elegy will be transformed into a creative psalm of peace and “justice will roll down like waters from a mighty stream.”

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Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition to poverty and the Vietnam War. On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the black sanitary public works employees, who were represented by AFSCME Local 1733. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Etta Furlow’s struggle for democracy, justice, and socialism / by Rebecca Pera

Etta Furlow, the ‘Queen Mother’ of Minneapolis’ progressive community. | The Etta Furlow Papers / Minnesota Historical Society

For eight decades, Etta Furlow lived a life filled with struggle and achievements, culminating in a long list of accomplishments. She was known in the community as “Queen Mother” for her tireless efforts in fighting for the rights of African Americans, women, and the working class in Minnesota.

She was recognized by the NAACP, St. Paul Urban League, AFL-CIO, and the Minnesota Nurses’s Association for her work in the labor and civil rights movements. This outstanding leader received the Rosa Parks Award on Feb. 27, 1983, in commemoration of Black History Month for her “aggressive articulation of racist and unjust practices on local, state, and national issues.” And in the 1980s, the City of St. Paul, declared “Etta Furlow Day” in her honor.

The Etta Furlow Papers / Minnesota Historical Society

Born in 1910 in Missouri, Furlow moved to Chicago in the 1940s to pursue her studies in nursing. Having received a certificate for massage and physical therapy in 1947, she would become a licensed practical nurse in the state of Illinois in 1959. Upon achieving her diploma, she moved to St. Paul in 1960 with her husband, James Furlow, to work in an integrated hospital. During this period, this groundbreaking African American leader also transitioned into the role of labor organizer, leading the fight to integrate the Minnesota Practical Nurses Association, the predecessor of the Minnesota Licensed Practical Nurses Association (MLPNA).

A fierce advocate for Black women, she used her position as a labor leader to fight against segregation and for respect and unity in the nurses union. As she continued the struggle into her later years, Furrow discussed concerns over the excessive pressure placed on women for waged labor and the increased competition among women in the workplace. “A situation which polarizes rather than unites women is not progress,” she said.

Having worked as a pediatric nurse for many of her professional years, Furlow also held in high esteem “reproductive labor”— the work women do that is life-sustaining: domestic work and raising children, keeping themselves, their families, and others healthy, safe, fed, clean, cared for, and thriving. In other words, the labor leader deeply valued the essential work that capitalism tends not to acknowledge or compensate. “The world depends on women, and women depend on each other,” she stated.

The Etta Furlow Papers / Minnesota Historical Society

Etta and James Furlow were foster parents, and their work at home mirrored the social justice work they did in the community. The couple frequently had nieces and nephews staying with them whom she helped raise. Her home was the after-school gathering spot for children on her block who might not have had anywhere else to go. In her position as Education Chairperson for the Minnesota Licensed Practical Nurses Association, Furlow worked unremittingly to get a child abuse protection law passed in the state. And it was she who organized the first seminar on the subject of child abuse in Minnesota in 1973.

Etta Furlow understood that under capitalism, cooperation, and collectivity are neglected and replaced by individualism, which places a higher importance on material consumption than on health, community, and well-being.

As a foster mother, a community mother, and “Queen Mother,” she valued time for true connections with people over “token stuff,” as she put it. “Toys and trips are no substitute for love. The only thing anybody really needs is food, shelter, warmth, participation, and recognition.”

The Etta Furlow Papers / Minnesota Historical Society

The respected community leader also promoted participation and recognition for seniors of color in her work with the Metropolitan Council’s Minority Issues Advisory Committee and the Metropolitan Council’s Advisory Commission for the Aging. In these roles, she arranged for homebound senior residents to attend the Minnesota state fair and helped to organize a voter registration drive specifically targeting seniors.

Furlow’s rich tapestry of lived experiences led her to storytelling. In the 1980s, she was involved in a storytelling group called Whispers, composed of older women. A play based on her life, entitled Etta, was written and performed at the Guthrie Theater, a center for theater performance, production, and education in Minneapolis. “We all have a story to tell,” the play’s original protagonist explained.

Etta Furlow was a member of the Communist Party USA’s Bill Herron Club in St. Paul until her passing. Party members there have many fond memories of her. They recall how “Queen Mother” would frequently be seen with other party leaders like novelist Meridel Le Sueur reading books and passing out political pamphlets and Marxist literature at the Paul Robeson Bookstore in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis. “I strive to get along with folks here on earth,” she concluded.

Rebecca Pera is a retired Twin Cities, Minnesota, teacher.

People’s World, February 28, 2023

History: The Black national anthem ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is first performed / by Special to the Peopl’es World

Portrait of composers and producers Bob Cole, James Weldon Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson, Jan. 1, 1900, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library (public domain)

Originally published in Literary History, February 12 – February 18, 2023

On Feb. 12, 1900, the students of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Fla., where James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)—the poet and novelist who would go on to become the executive secretary of the NAACP—was the principal, gave the first ever performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song that would become known as the Black national anthem, as part of a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977), artist, ‘James Weldon Johnson—Author, Diplomat, Public Servant,’ National Archives at College Park.

“My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercise,” Johnson wrote in 1935.

“I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored schoolchildren.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, and they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

As Johnson intimates, the song quickly spread after its original performance. It was endorsed by Booker T. Washington in 1905 and became the official song of the NAACP in 1919. Since then, it has remained a beloved cultural touchstone, sung in schools, stadiums, and churches across the country, and performed by everyone from Kim Weston to Gladys Knight to Beyoncé.

“What are we to do with the ugliness that comes with loving a country with soil rich from the bloodshed of those who shoulder the trauma of its creation—from the pillaging of the land to the enslaved bodies that toiled atop it?” wrote Gerrick Kennedy in Didnt We Almost Have It All. “The answer for Black people was to make their own anthem, and that’s why for the last century ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has been our rallying cry for liberation and a lasting symbol of Black pride.”

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

The unsigned article appeared recently in Literary History.

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.

Teach Black history – don’t ban it! / by Tracey L. Rogers

Otherwords.org. | Shutterstock

Originally published in Otherwords on February 1, 2022

When Republican President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.”

He also acknowledged that Black Americans had shown “courage and perseverance” when our country had failed to live up to its own ideals.

Today, even Ford’s simple words would be inadmissible in many American classrooms.

As of last year, at least 35 state legislatures had introduced bills to limit the discussion of racial history in their classrooms. At least 16 had passed them.

Over 300 books by predominantly Black authors are banned throughout the country. And educators are being fined, harassed, forced to resign, or fired for teaching about race.

Little acts like hanging a “Black Lives Matter Sign” in class can be grounds for termination. In Florida, keeping classroom books that haven’t been cleared by state censors can be grounds for felony prosecution.

As a result, teachers are finding it more and more difficult to teach about Black history without fear of repercussions.

As a Black woman, I am not at all surprised by these attempts to whitewash our history. If I were a politician obsessed with suppressing civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice, I too would probably want to make sure only my version of the story gets told.

These efforts aren’t new, either.

Despite progress made since the Civil Rights Movement to update the textbooks used in U.S. schools, “most mainstream social studies textbooks remain tethered to sanitized versions of history that mislead young minds,” writes fifth-grade teacher and Rethinking Schools founder Bob Peterson.

In a discussion with Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, journalist and Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that this erasure is no accident.

Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project founder, explained: “The same instinct that led powerful people to prohibit Black people from being able to read is the same instinct that’s leading powerful people to try to stop our children from learning histories that would lead them to question the unequal society that we have as well.”

It’s why politicians like Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) are going to such lengths to ban Black studies in schools. The Florida Education Department and College Board recently rejected an AP African American History high school curriculum, claiming it “lacked educational value.”

DeSantis notoriously signed the so-called “Individual Freedom Act,” also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which states that “teachers are not allowed to make students feel ‘guilty about past discrimination by members of their race.’”

Much of Black history in this country isn’t easy to learn, teach, or digest — there is nothing comfortable about it. But the point isn’t to make students feel “guilty.” It’s to help them learn.

To be “woke,” or to “stay woke” — a term originated by African American communities in the 1940s — is to become “woken up or sensitized to issues of justice,” as linguist Tony Thorne told The Independent.

The state of Florida apparently agrees, defining “woke” in court as simply “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society.” But the state is manipulating the term as if it were wrong or “progressive” to believe that systemic injustices exist.

Thankfully, many people aren’t fooled. Students all over the country, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, are protesting book bans on stories of color.

Overturning those bans would benefit kids of every color. “Having a diverse curriculum will benefit students in the long haul,” argues writer Nathalie Wilson, because it “helps them to better understand the complexities in the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Black history is complex. It is also American history. This Black History Month, don’t ban it — teach it.

Permission to reprint granted by Otherwords.org.

Tracey L. Rogers is an entrepreneur and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant in Philadelphia.

Reposted in the People’s World, on February 10, 2023, https://www.peoplesworld.org/