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My Song: A Memoirby Harry Belafonte
The phone rang late in the evening in my New York apartment. It was the night of August 4, 1964. A night of grief and anger for all of us in the civil rights movement, but especially those in Mississippi. “We’ve got a crisis on our hands down here,” the young man on the line said. “We need help.”
At the start of that fateful summer, hundreds of volunteers, most of them students, many of them white, all of them knowing how dangerous the work would be, had come down from northern universities to register black voters and support rural blacks in pursuit of their civil rights. They were fanning out along the front lines of a civil rights war, unarmed in a state of seething segregationists.
Mississippi’s police stood ready at the slightest pretext to beat them bloody and throw them in jail. The Ku Klux Klan might well do worse. That day, we all learned just how much worse. The bodies of three volunteers, missing since June 21, had been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman— two of them white, one black— had been arrested on an alleged traffic violation, briefl y jailed, then allowed to drive off, after dark, into a KKK ambush. All three had been beaten, then shot. Chaney, the black volunteer, had been tortured and mutilated.
I’d helped raise a lot of the money to launch Mississippi Freedom Summer. I’d called all the top entertainers I knew— Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Dick Gregory, and more— to ask that they give money directly or participate in benefit concerts. That money bought a lot of gas and cars, housing and food. But now more was needed. A lot more.
The original plan had called for students to do two-week shifts, then go home and be replaced by others. With the ominous disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, every shift had insisted on staying.
Now that the bodies had been found, all those volunteers voted to stay not just through summer, but into the fall as well. “It’s good they’re staying,” explained Jim Forman, the young man who called me that night. Jim was the de facto head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of several civil rights groups down there. “Because if they leave now, or even at the end of August, the Klan will say it intimidated them into going, and the press will play it that way. And if they all stay, we can get thousands of more voters registered. The problem is we don’t have the resources to keep them all here.”
“What do you need?” I asked.
“At least fifty thousand dollars.”
I told him I’d get it, one way or the other. “How soon do you need it?”
“We’re going to burn through the rest of our budget in seventy-two hours.”
Before he rang off, Forman told me one other thing. “This could get really ugly,” he said quietly. “I’m hearing a lot of people say enough is enough, the hell with nonviolence. They’re taking up guns. I’m worried they’re going to take matters into their own hands.”
I had to think hard about where that money might come from, and how I might get it to Greenwood, Mississippi. I could tap my own savings for the whole $50,000— I’d written a check to SNCC for an amount not much smaller than that in its early days to help establish it, and others since then. For me it was “anything goes,” but I owed it to my family to keep us fi nancially safe. Paul Robeson, the extraordinary actor, singer, and activist whose path I’d tried to follow my whole adult life, had given so much money to social causes that he’d left himself vulnerable to his enemies, chief among them the federal government, a formidable force led by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when he was blacklisted as a communist in the late 1940s. With Senator Joseph McCarthy riding shotgun, the federal government had cowed Carnegie Hall and other American venues into not hiring him, then seized his passport so that he couldn’t earn a living performing abroad. Eventually Paul ran through his savings and slid into a deep place of sadness. I never forgot that. Somehow, I’d have to raise most of this money from others. In two days, maybe three. Then there was the matter of how that money would get to Mississippi. I couldn’t just wire it and have a black civil rights activist go to the local Western Union offi ce to ask for his $50,000, please. He’d be dead before he drove a mile away. So would a white college volunteer. As for banks, those fi ne institutions owned and operated by Mississippi’s white power elite? No way.
The money would have to be brought down in cash. And unless I could come up with some brighter idea, I’d have to take it down myself.
My wife, Julie, started pulling together a New York fundraiser at our West End Avenue apartment. I fl ew to Chicago. Irv Kupcinet, as powerful a columnist in his city as Walter Winchell was in New York, gathered dozens of guests at his home on a day or two’s notice. White guests, bearing checkbooks. Why did I, as a black performer, have such sway with Irv and his friends? Our friendship traced back to my clubcircuit days as a young troubadour in the early fi fties, but our personal history was just one part of it. Without quite knowing how I did it, I had some power to reach a hand across the racial divide. That, I knew, had as much to do with the moment as with me. Galvanized by the shocking news of the volunteers’ murders, Irv’s guests thrust cash and checks at me— $35,000 worth— as if I was the personal emissary of the civil rights movement. Which in a way, in that place and on that
evening, I was. After making a trip to Montreal, I had another $20,000.
When I got back to New York, Julie and I took in $15,000 more from our own apartment fundraiser. Time was running out: I’d hoped to raise $100,000, but $70,000 would have to do. I felt pretty good about that sum of money. I felt even better now that I had a sidekick for the trip: my pal from our days together as struggling actors in Harlem, Sidney Poitier.
Sidney and I were like brothers. Born within eight days of each other, we shared the same West Indian heritage, and the same burning desire to break out of grinding poverty. Incredibly, both of us had achieved our dreams as entertainers. Sidney was the top black actor in Hollywood. I’d found my first successes as a singer, but had gone on to my own share of Broadway and Hollywood triumphs. We were, to put it simply, the two top black male entertainers in the world. Like
brothers, we were also fiercely competitive, and had our differences, both political and personal. For starters, Sidney was a lot more cautious than I was. “What kind of protection are you going to have?” he asked warily when I asked him to come.
“I talked to Bobby about it,” I said. Robert F. Kennedy was still serving, after his brother’s assassination, as U.S. Attorney General under President Johnson. He’d directed me to Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Both understood the risk I was taking. In Mississippi’s vicious climate, the chances of a Klansman taking a potshot at me were actually pretty high. Knocking off that rich Negro singer from New York who thought he knew what was best for the South? Ten points! Marshall heard me out on the phone, and took down my itinerary. I conveyed all this to Sidney, maybe presuming a bit more from my conversation with Marshall than I should have. “Marshall’s on it,” I told him. “That means federal security every step of the way.”
“Every step of the way,” Sidney echoed.
“Right,” I said. “Besides, it’ll be harder for them to knock off two black stars than one. Strength in numbers, man.”
“Okay,” Sidney said grimly. “But after this, Harry?”
“Never call me again.”
I knew Sidney well enough to know he meant it— at least at that moment. Of course I chose to view his fury as a joke and laughed it off, but I laughed alone. Unaccompanied, and not making much conversation, the two of us boarded a plane in Newark, New Jersey, bound for Jackson, Mississippi. I’d deposited the fundraiser checks and replaced them with cash, so we had $70,000 in small bills stuffed into a black doctor’s bag. In that long- ago time, no one asked us what we were carrying. A flight attendant just waved us aboard.
Our flight to Jackson was the evening’s last one into the main airport. We found Jim Forman and two other SNCC volunteers waiting
for us, but otherwise the terminal sat virtually deserted. The only sign of local authority we saw was a black maintenance man pushing a broom. Sidney shot me an angry glance. “That’s our federal security?” “Probably an FBI agent in disguise,” I told him. Sidney didn’t so much as chuckle.
The volunteers led us out into the heavy, humid Mississippi night and over to a private strip beside the airport where a little Cessna was waiting. The pilot, who was white, greeted us most soberly, with a deep southern accent. As we piled in, I stole another look at him. Was he a Klansman, leading us into a trap? He sure seemed to fit the role.
My fears deepened as the tiny plane fl ew toward Greenwood. It was a bumpy ride. The pilot seemed unconcerned. We took every pitch of the plane as the beginning of the end.
Finally we landed on a dirt runway beside a shack that constituted Greenwood’s airport. The pilot taxied past it, and then back, let us out, and took off immediately. What did he know that we didn’t? I looked around, struck as much by the darkness as by the heat. I’d never seen a night as black as this. A poem called “The Creation,” by James Weldon Johnson, came back to me.
. . . far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Two more SNCC volunteers were waiting for us, with two cars, to take us into town. Sidney and I slid into the back of one, with Jim Forman in the passenger seat and a young SNCCer named Willie Blue in the driver’s seat; the rest got into the second car. Both cars had been sanded to a dull fi nish so they wouldn’t shine at night. A good precaution, but not good enough: As Willie and the other driver started their engines, a long row of headlights flashed on at the far end of the dark airfield. “That must be the federal agents,” I said to Sidney. But we could see that the pairs of headlights were at different heights, and they blazed with differing degrees of brightness. Willie Blue dashed my hopes. “Agents, my ass,” he muttered. “That’s the Klan.”
Instead of driving away from the row of headlights, in the direction of the main road to town, Willie and the other driver started moving at full speed toward them. We got close enough to see the dim outlines of three or four old pickup trucks. Then, as if at some prearranged signal, Willie and the other driver veered off to the side, taking a rough, alternative route to the road that led to town. The pickups fell in line behind us.
“Why aren’t you driving faster?” I shouted. Willie was keeping right to the forty-mile-an-hour speed limit. “Faster, man!”
“No,” Willie shouted back. “That’s exactly what they want us to do.
They got a state trooper up there waiting in his car with the headlights off, ready to arrest us for speeding. He takes us to the station, lets us out in an hour, and even more of the Klan be waiting for us. That’s how they work. That’s how those boys got killed.”
From behind us, the fi rst pickup truck sped up and started to pass us. Through the rear window, we could see it had a two-by- four across its grille— a makeshift battering ram— and no license plate. Willie swerved into the middle of the two- lane road to keep the pickup from pulling alongside. Now the pickup started ramming the back of our car. “We can’t let him pull up beside us,” Willie shouted. “They’ll shoot.”
Willie switched on his walkie-talkie and radioed the SNCC office in Greenwood. From the other walkie- talkie I heard a crackling voice: “We’re on our way.”
The pickup truck kept ramming our car, but Willie stayed doggedly to the center of the road, edging left every time the truck tried to pull up. Finally, after two or three terrifying minutes that seemed like forever, I looked down the road to see a convoy of cars coming toward us from Greenwood. “That’s them,” Willie said. The SNCC brigade to the rescue. My heart was still pounding, but I started to breathe again.
As the convoy approached, the pickup trucks slowed, and their headlights retreated. That was when we heard the shots, a dozen or more. Whether the Klansmen were fi ring at us or shooting up in the air, we couldn’t tell. No one was hit, and no bullets pierced our cars. When we turned off the main road, secure now among the SNCC fleet, we looked back to see the pickups rolling off down the main road, with more gunfire as they went.
The convoy led us into Greenwood, and beyond, to an Elks hall, where hundreds of volunteers were gathered. They had spent the day in heated debate, tense and tired, over what their next moves should be. Most of their options depended on us. When Sidney and I walked in, screams of joy went up from the crowd. Sidney and I had heard a lot of applause in our day, but never anything like those cheers. After weeks of lonely, scary fieldwork, these volunteers were wrung out and in despair. To have two of the biggest black stars in the world walk in to show solidarity with them— that meant a lot to them, and to us.
The crowd took up a freedom song, and then another— the spirituals that had given these brave volunteers comfort and encouragement day after day. Finally Sidney spoke. “I am thirty- seven years old,” he told the crowd. “I have been a lonely man all my life . . . because I have not found love . . . but this room is overflowing with it.” Then Sidney turned to me. I let a pause fall over the room, then sang out, “Day- o . . .” The crowd picked it up with a roar. The “Banana Boat Song” was my musical signature, but more than that, it was a cry from the heart of poor workers, a cry of weariness mingled with hope, both
of which those volunteers felt profoundly that night. “Day- o, Day- o / Daylight come an’ me wan’ go home” had also been turned into a civil rights anthem— “Freedom, freedom, freedom come an’ it won’t be long.” When the crowd had sung both versions, I held up the black satchel I’d brought, upturned it on the table in front of me, and let the bundles of cash cascade out, to delirious shouts.
As Sidney had said, we felt a lot of love in that barn. Outside it, though, Ku Klux Klanners sat in idling cars; we could hardly keep them out of Greenwood. That day planes had fl own overhead, dropping KKK leaflets that urged Mississippians not to let the niggers steal their rights. Late that night, after a dinner of chicken and spareribs, Sidney and I were escorted to the house where we were to sleep, with armed guards patrolling outside. Our bedroom had one double bed— not too big a double bed, either— shoved up against a wall under a window. Sidney blanched.
“Look, I’ll take the inside, okay?” I told him, meaning the side by the wall. I meant it as a concession: I’d be the one scrunched in by my snoring bedmate.
Sidney gave me a suspicious look. “Yeah, but if someone sticks a gun through that window and shoots, I’ll be more apt to get hit.”
He was only half joking.
“Okay, okay, I’ll take the outside,” I said.
Sidney thought about that. If I was willing to take the outside, maybe it was the better side after all. “No, I’ll take the outside,” he
said. “If you do get shot, I’d hate to have to climb over your dead ass to get to the door.”
In bed with the light out, we talked for a while. I told Sidney some of my ghost stories. Finally I fell into a ragged sleep, only to be awakened, in the pitch darkness, by a strange rasping sound. I reached over to nudge Sidney awake. The other side of the bed was empty. The rasping sound was louder. “Sidney?”
“Yes,” he rasped.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Push-ups,” Sidney said. “I can’t sleep. And when those motherfuckers come for us, I want to be sure I’m ready.”
Often in the days after I got home to my wife and children, I asked myself why I had taken on the civil rights movement as my personal crusade. I knew the reason I’d gotten involved in general—any black American with a pulse and a conscience had done that by the summer of 1964, at least to the extent of writing the occasional check. A lot of white Americans had, too. All of us sensed this was a point at which history simply had to turn. We couldn’t tolerate more lynchings and beatings. We couldn’t abide more “whites-only” signs on the hotels and restaurants and gas stations and water fountains and bus stations of the segregated South. We couldn’t let black Americans be treated as slaves in all but name anymore. This we knew. But why did I feel so personally offended, sitting in my twenty-one-room apartment on West End Avenue, when I saw news pictures of student protesters beaten by truncheon- wielding state police and bitten by police attack dogs? What deep wellspring of anger did those images bring up, and why had I felt so angry, for so long, about so many other related issues of freedom, and democracy, and equality, as if the perpetrators of these grave indignities— from the president to the FBI to the military to the man in the street— had set out to do me wrong? And why, when I also cared so much about making a success of myself as an actor and singer, had I jeopardized—in some ways damaged—a career trajectory that had made me, at thirty, the world’s first so-called black matinee idol?
My mother had a lot to do with it. To a lesser degree my father, but he was in there. I also knew that from childhood, I’d occupied a lonely place, not just between West Indian and American culture, but between black and white. And in both the actual worlds I’d balanced between as a kid— Kingston and Harlem— I was as poor as poor could be. I was definitely angry about that.
Long after I’d immersed myself in the civil rights movement, I would still be trying to understand that anger and make it melt away.
With Martin Luther King, Jr., to guide me, I would embrace nonviolence—not just as an organizing tactic, but as a way of life. Half a century of Freudian analysis would help, too. But as I began to set down the story of my life, I would still be piecing the parts together. I know more now than when I started this book. I see the little boy I was, in all his complexities, angry and hurt, almost always alone. Yet why this little boy, among all others, should use his anger to push himself up, make a name for himself, and then make it his mission to smash racial barriers and injustice with such grim determination, I’m not sure I can say.
Perhaps, in the end, where your anger comes from is less important than what you do with it.
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