Harry Belafonte was among the greatest of the Greatest Generation. While he was known around the world for his singing, activism and humanitarian work, he also served the United States as a sailor in the Navy during World War II. With his passing today, we wanted to look back on his extraordinary life, including his service to our country.
Known as the “King of Calypso,” Harry Belafonte introduced America to the sounds of the Caribbean, singing songs from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, among other countries. After achieving stardom, Belafonte could have rested on his laurels as an entertainer and lived a comfortable life. But from his time living in Jamaica to going to school in New York to touring the United States, he saw what things weren’t right and used his stardom, voice and stature to speak out for Civil Rights well before it was fashionable – right up until his passing.
Belafonte was in high school when he decided to drop out and enlist so he could contribute to the war effort. He was only 17 when he signed up and was assigned to Port Chicago, located in San Francisco.
One event in particular that had a big influence on Belafonte and his quest for social justice happened just before he arrived at Port Chicago. The United States military, at the time, was segregated and Black sailors were limited in the roles in which they could serve. Belafonte himself was assigned a role loading ships that were to be sent to the South Pacific for battle against the Empire of Japan.
One of the ships being loaded exploded and 320 people were killed. Around two-thirds of the deaths were Black sailors. The unsafe working conditions, in part due to different safety standards and segregated units, led to the sailors refusing to load ammunition until changes were made. Fifty Black sailors were convicted and imprisoned, accused of mutiny, when they just wanted safe and equitable working conditions.
That injustice had a profound effect on a young Belafonte. He said, "It was the worst home front disaster of World War II, but almost no one knows about it or what followed,” reported the Department of Defense. After leaving the Navy, Belafonte used his GI Bill to move into entertainment. While taking acting classes alongside the likes of Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, he took up singing to make some money. That led him on a journey that took him from singing Jazz music to developing an interest in the folk music of the Caribbean.
In 1956, he had his first big break with the album, Calypso which broke records when it sold over a million copies in a single year. He had a string of hits that have endured across multiple generations including, The Banana Boat Song, Jump in the Line and Jamaican Farewell.
Belafonte knew he could do more than just entertain people. And he did. He was an early and very vocal supporter of Dr Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. He bailed King out of jail when he was arrested in Birmingham, raised money for activists in Mississippi, contributed to Freedom Riders and organized the March on Washington. On international issues, he organized efforts to punish South Africa for its apartheid policies, worked against colonization in Africa and spoke out against the War in Iraq.
Belafonte was also heavily involved in humanitarian causes. From being an organizer on the We Are the World fundraising song by USA for Africa to being a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador to working to mitigate AIDS in Africa, there were a plethora of causes and lives saved because of the efforts of Belafonte.
Even years after his service was over, he never forgot the injustice he saw Black sailors face when they tried to change unsafe conditions in Port Chicago. According to a DOD report, Belafonte said, "The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America's ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in Baval history, and a national disgrace,"
Because of his vocal stance on that injustice, people began to revisit the tragedy and its aftereffects.
In 1994, a memorial was dedicated to the lives lost in the Port Chicago disaster.
Harry Belafonte fought many battles for justice, and one was so his fellow fallen sailors could be remembered forever. May we do the same for him.