Harry Belafonte Turns 95 With a Call for Social Justice

“He put his money where his mouth is, and he put his career on the line,” said Laurence Fishburne at a gala Tuesday night celebrating the 95th birthday of Harry Belafonte, the groundbreaking entertainer whose fight for racial justice may prove an even more lasting legacy. “And he looked pretty while he was doing it.”

Mr. Fishburne was one of more than 1,000 elegantly attired attendees at The Town Hall theater in Manhattan for the first Harry Belafonte Social Justice Awards given by Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded 10 years ago by Mr. Belafonte, his daughter Gina Belafonte and the music executive Raoul Roach.

And he had a point. Mr. Belafonte, whose looks and charm stood out even by Hollywood standards, made his mark as a singer (his “Calypso” album from 1956 became the first by a solo performer to sell a million copies) and then as an actor who shattered racial stereotypes in 1950s films like “Carmen Jones” and “Island in the Sun.”

But as presenters including Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Moore made clear, Mr. Belafonte has been an outspoken activist for racial justice since the Eisenhower years, when such a stand could prove career-threatening.

Danny Glover, another presenter, recalled being struck by Mr. Belafonte’s political urgency in an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” in the 1970s. “I had heard his songs, of course, we all sang his songs, but to see him expound on his relationship with the world as an artist, it was profound for me,” said Mr. Glover, who went on to become an actor and activist himself.

For Mr. Belafonte, grace and wit proved useful weapons in the fight for justice, those who knew him said. “We traveled all over the country and the world together, and I always loved his sense of humor,” said Cornel West, the professor and public intellectual who received a social justice award in education. “It’s hard to have a genuine revolutionary with a sense of the comic.”

Guests walked the red carpet around 6:30 p.m. and took their seats for a nearly three hour ceremony that interspersed the awards with performances and tributes. Alicia Keys recited a poem called “The Gift to Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson. The choreographer Bill T. Jones performed an interpretive dance to a vintage black-and-white clip of Mr. Belafonte crooning his haunting rendition of “Try to Remember.”

Mr. Belafonte himself was unable to attend because of concerns about traveling during the pandemic, organizers said.

But this was not merely a night for looking back. “You can’t fight for democracy in the Ukraine and not fight for it here,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, looking dapper in a steel-blue three-piece suit.

As the evening drew to a close, Mr. Moore sauntered onstage in a baggy black sweatshirt and cap. He pointed out that in 1927, the year Mr. Belafonte was born, the highest-grossing film was “The Jazz Singer,” featuring a scene where Al Jolson, a white actor, performs in blackface, and, he said, “there was no Voting Rights Act for Black Americans — just like now.”

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