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The life, career and activism of legendary performer Harry Belafonte


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: And finally tonight: A giant in the world of performance and activism has died.

We look at the breadth and impact of Harry Belafonte, whom the president today called a groundbreaking American who used his talent, his fame, and his voice to help redeem the soul of our nation.

It was Harry Belafonte's signature hit in a long career and life defined by much more than music.

Belafonte rose to fame with the 1956 "Banana Boat" song, earning him the nickname King of Calypso. Born in Harlem to Caribbean parents, he grew up in poverty during the Depression, but went on to win and Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards, singing everything from "Calypso," to spirituals, to protest songs.

His third album, "Calypso," was the officially certified album by a solo performer to sell more than a million copies.

Harry Belafonte, Musician: Don't be like that, baby.

Amna Nawaz: Belafonte broke barriers on the stage and screen as well, one of the few Black leading men in the 1950s and unafraid of tackling taboo themes like race.

Even in a racially segregated America, the handsome, husky-voiced Belafonte became a sex symbol with fans nationwide. But he grew tired of acting, eventually turning down jobs he described as racially neutered. By the 1960s, he was publicly more politically active. In 2011, he spoke about that journey with Gwen Ifill.

Harry Belafonte: My activism really started the day of my birth, born from Caribbean parents in New York City. My mother was overwhelmed by America. She came here with hopes and ambitions that were never fulfilled.

Amna Nawaz: Belafonte recalled the spirit of 1930s America.

Harry Belafonte: At that time, there was a lot of talk about white supremacy and Hitler and democracy, and America was mobilizing for this great campaign. And the whole world was caught up in it.

What attracted me to the arts was the fact that I saw theater as a social force, as a political force. I kind of felt that art was a powerful tool, and that is what I should be doing with mine.

Amna Nawaz: Belafonte lent his vote his voice to the black-led civil rights movement, marching alongside his friend Martin Luther King Jr.

He reflected on the first moment he met Dr. King in this 2018 interview with "NewsHour"'s Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Harry Belafonte: I listened to him, and I was just absolutely struck with the way in which he presented his case to the Black religious community, condemning them for being not more engaged in the social destiny of Black people.

Amna Nawaz: As civil rights protests unfolded in 1968, Belafonte guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" for a week, the first Black man ever to host a late-night show. His guests included Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. His activism over decades knew no bounds.

Harry Belafonte: The fight for freedom.

Amna Nawaz: Campaigning to end apartheid in Africa, mobilizing support to end HIV/AIDS, and serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

In 1985, he helped gather global superstars to record "We Are the World." The song raised to $64 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. Belafonte also faced criticism for meeting with leftist leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. But he never stopped speaking out against racism in America.

Harry Belafonte: The struggle is still going on. The cruelty of the enemy is as great as ever.

Amna Nawaz: And he criticized Democrats and Republicans along the way, in 2006 calling then-President George W. Bush the greatest terrorist in the world for invading Iraq.

Belafonte carried his mission to promote peace well into his later years, reflecting on his work and life in 2011.

Harry Belafonte: Eleanor Roosevelt just walked into my life. And she turned it around. Dr. King called me on the phone one day. Malcolm X knocked at the door one day. Nelson Mandela, he and I had an exchange of letters while he was in prison.

And just these things kept emerging. And, each time, I saw opportunity to become involved in what their struggle and our struggle was about, and felt I would make as big a difference as I could.

Amna Nawaz: Belafonte's publicist said he died of congestive heart failure today at his home in New York. He was 96 years old.

It's like he lived many lives in the one he was given. What a loss.

Geoff Bennett: Yes. He was as tireless as he was brilliant. And he was successful and impactful in so many different facets of American life, an exceptional, exceptional life.

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