'An Activist Who Became an Artist': Reflecting on Harry Belafonte 'In His Own Words'

The pioneering singer, actor, and activist passed away on Tuesday, April 25. He was 96.

Harry Belafonte, the barrier-breaking singer, songwriter, actor, and activist, who would later become a pillar in the civil rights movement, is no longer with us. Following an illustrious musical career that included popularizing Jamaican folk songs and several decades advocating for various political and humanitarian causes, Belafonte passed away in his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Tuesday, April 25, from congestive heart failure. He was 96 years old.

BET will honor the legacy of this barrier-breaking entertainer with an exclusive news special called “HARRY BELAFONTE: IN HIS OWN WORDS,” airing today, April 25 at 6 p.m. ET/PT on BET and BET HER. Hosted by CBS News anchor Michelle Miller, this BET and CBS News production weaves archival footage and interviews of Belafonte at various stages of his life, reflecting on his career as an artist and civil rights activist. The special also features an exclusive interview Belafonte gave BET News in 2016 at his tribute concert, “Many Rivers to Cross: A Festival of Music, Art, and Justice," and interviews with Michael B. Jordan and other celebrities reflecting on Belafonte’s life and impact.”

“We are deeply saddened by the news of Harry Belafonte’s passing this morning." Mr. Belafonte was a tireless activist and talented actor and musician whose music helped break Caribbean music through to a global audience and whose humanitarian efforts changed the world,” said Scott Mills, president and CEO, BET Media Group. “BET was honored to bestow him with the Humanitarian Award at the 2006 BET Awards. I join so many in celebration of his life, legacy, and immeasurable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and the arts. We will remember and miss him dearly.”

"HARRY BELAFONTE: IN HIS OWN WORDS" recounts some pivotal moments in the life of Harry Belafonte, including his hits the "Banana Boat Song," "Jump in the Line (Shake Senora)," and breaking into acting alongside Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. Whether he was focused on music or acting, activism was a constant throughout his life. From marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to protesting apartheid in South Africa, he always used his platform for causes he felt would make the world better. Belafonte received numerous awards, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2015 Academy Awards and two Grammys.

RELATED: Celebrities And Activists React To The Passing Of The Legendary Harry Belafonte

Belafonte often risked his own career to seek justice for people in his community. He shared in the special, “I was an activist who became an artist. I was not an artist who became an activist.”

His love for performing, which often paid homage to his Caribbean roots, blossomed following a first-time trip to the American Negro Theater. However, his shot to stardom during the Jim Crow era is what drove him to seek justice for those he so loved to entertain.

RELATED: Harry Belafonte, 96, Dies; Barrier-Breaking Singer, Actor and Activist

The Harlem native’s popularity was so substantial that it even caused the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC to open its doors to Black patrons for the first time. “I couldn’t even sing there,” he recalled. “And when they accidentally booked me, the place did so well they’d finally officially let Blacks have access to the hotel.”

Belafonte took the ultimate stand after joining the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. The activist reflected on being “blown away” hearing the then 24-year-old reverend speak for the first time.

Along with entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., and Sidney Poitier, Belafonte helped form the celebrity contingent. Together, they would help spread awareness, create movement, and do so much more. “We created the strategy for March on Washington, for Selma, and for Montgomery,” he shared. “We did more than just give money—it was the least of it—what we did was give ideas. And we took the platform and began to tell the story of our struggle.”

As we continue to tell the stories of Belafonte’s contributions to the fight for social justice, we honor his legacy to keep the battle going with a new crop of activists like Jesse Williams, Rosario Dawson, Colin Kaepernick, and more.

Tune in to see BET’s “Harry Belafonte: In His Own Words,” airing on April 25 at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT on BET and BET HER.

Latest News

Subscribe for BET Updates

Provide your email address to receive our newsletter.

By clicking Subscribe, you confirm that you have read and agree to our Terms of Use and acknowledge our Privacy Policy. You also agree to receive marketing communications, updates, special offers (including partner offers) and other information from BET and the Paramount family of companies. You understand that you can unsubscribe at any time.