By Dana C. Ayres
Over the course of the 20th century, our nation has produced some of the finest African American entertainers the world over. The irony is that many of these great people grew up in and lived lives wrought with the ravages of American racism. It is only fitting that these great people would lend their time, hearts, minds and valuable gifts to the struggle for equality that would eventually expose and ultimately destroy the crippling duality of their own existence in the spotlight.
Here are just 6 of some of the greatest activist entertainers of our time.
An American Civil Rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur and comedian, Dick Gregory’s life and accomplishments are anything but a laughing matter.He excelled in track and field in high school and won a scholarship to Southern Illinois University, but that college career was cut short when he got drafted into the army, where he got his start in comedy. The St. Louis native won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1962, as well as a star on The Walk of Fame in August 2015. Gregory is also known for his passionate activism concerning the anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and economic reform and often went on hunger strikes to show his solidarity.
The incomparable Harry Belafonte was a singer, songwriter, actor and social activist born in Harlem, New York in the late 1920’s. The multiple Grammy,Tony and Emmy award winner was a fixture in the Civil Rights Movement during its inception in the 1950’s. He was also a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Belafonte lent his time and energy to such causes as the movement to end Apartheid, USA for Africa and he has been a UNICEF Goodwill */Ambassador since 1987. He presently is a celebrity ambassador to the ACLU for juvenile justice issues. In 2014, Belafonte received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.
She was once described by Orson Wells as “the most exciting woman in the world.” This description pales in comparison to the multi-talents and achievements garnered by the stunning, Eartha Mae Kitt. Known for her distinctive singing style and that infamous “kitty snarl,” Kitt was an actress, cabaret star, dancer, stand-up comedian and voice artist and a passionate Civil Rights activist. In 1966 she established the Kittsville Youth Foundation to help underprivileged youth. She also advocated for a youth group in Washington, D.C. called “Rebels with a Cause.” The inner-city youth she aided affectionately dubbed her “Mother Eartha.” Her outspoken opposition of the Vietnam War brought her under CIA surveillance in 1956 and as a result, she was blacklisted from performing in the U.S. In her later years she was an advocate for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.
- Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
- Born in Princeton, New Jersey, the future Rutgers University graduate would leave an indelible mark on the entertainment and political world. In college, he was an all-American football player and class valedictorian who later received an undergraduate degree in Law or Bachelor of Law (LL.B.) from Columbia University. Robeson was known for his powerful bass singing voice and was a prominent actor in stage and film. He became politically active when he spoke out against international issues dealing with the spread of fascism in Europe, as well as anti-imperialism and American racism. During WWII, he was initially a supporter of the American war efforts, but was also supportive of Soviet policies, too. This is where the FBI shows up. During the McCarthy era in the 1950’s, he was summarily blacklisted, but it never caused him to waver on his views.
Ella Josephine Baker could very well be considered the mother of the modern American Civil Rights movement. Her 5 decades long career as a behind-the-scenes organizer can be described as nothing less than phenomenal. She has worked with the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash and Rosa Parks. She was an active promoter of the concepts of “grassroots organizing” and “radical democracy.” Radical democracy is inclusive of all people in struggle and not just an isolated few. Baker was an early influential NAACP member and “founder” of many groups and movements that were considered radical for their time. Most notably were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) which aimed to educate Southern Whites about racism.
. The singer, songwriter, pianist and arranger was also a passionate Civil Rights activist and Simone’s art was a reflection of her cause. As a child, she gave a debut classical recital in which her parents were made to sit on the back row to make room for White concert-goers. She refused to perform until they were seated again in the front row! Later in her career, she would record her first Civil Rights protest song, entitled “Mississippi Goddam,” in response to the murder of Mississippi NAACP leader, Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church Bombing where 4 little girls were killed in the blast. The single was boycotted in all Southern states. She would go on to perform and speak at many Civil Rights venues and make the struggle the basis and platform for her music. Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she advocated for violent change!