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Legendary Civil Rights Activist and Entertainer Harry Belafonte Dies at 96

Manfred Werner-Tsui, via Wikimedia Commons
Harry Belafonte, the iconic performer and civil rights activist, died on Tuesday at his New York home at the age of 96 due to congestive heart failure, according to his publicist Ken Sunshine. Belafonte's wife, Pamela, was reportedly with him at the time of his passing.

Belafonte was one of the first Black performers to achieve mainstream success in the entertainment industry, with chart-toppers such as "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" that sold millions of records. However, his impact went beyond music. In the 1960s, he emerged as a leading activist and humanitarian, forging a unique bond between Hollywood, Washington and the civil rights movement.

Belafonte's commitment to social justice saw him go beyond participating in protests and benefit concerts. He organized and raised funds for them, working closely with his friend and peer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His activism continued throughout his life, and he appeared in Spike Lee's 2018 film "BlacKkKlansman," portraying an elder statesman schooling young activists about the country's past.

Belafonte was also a trailblazer in the entertainment industry, winning a Tony Award in 1954 and becoming the first Black performer to receive an Emmy five years later. He co-starred in the all-Black cast of "Carmen Jones" and starred in the banned-in-the-South film "Island in the Sun." Belafonte's album "Calypso" became the first million-selling album by a solo performer, sparking a national fascination with Caribbean rhythms. Though nicknamed "the King of Calypso," he shunned the title.

Belafonte was a force in politics as well. John F. Kennedy sought his support during the 1960 presidential campaign, and Belafonte later became an advocate for Kennedy's civil rights agenda. He challenged segregationists, liberals, and even President Barack Obama, who he famously recollected had asked him and fellow activist Cornel West to "cut him some slack" during the first Black president's first term. Belafonte replied, “What makes you think we haven’t?”

Beyond the entertainment industry and politics, Belafonte set high standards for younger Black celebrities, mentoring Usher, Common, Danny Glover, and many others. He also scolded Jay Z and Beyonce for failing to meet their "social responsibilities."

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