Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem, New York on March 1, 1927. From 1932 to 1940, he lived with his grandmother in her native country of Jamaica. Belafonte then returned to New York City, where he attended George Washington High School, and later served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In the late 1940s, he took acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in Manhattan. To pay for those classes, he found work as a local club singer.
According to the historian Ron Radosh, “Belafonte’s public performances as a singer began when he appeared before communist-front youth groups on behalf of Henry Wallace and his 1948 presidential candidacy [under the auspices] of the communist-created and -dominated ‘Progressive Party,'” which opposed President Truman’s tough stance against the Soviet Union.
By the early 1950s, Belafonte had become a popular singer. His first widely–released single, which went on to become the signature song of his live performances, was “Matilda,” recorded in April 1953. His breakthrough album, Calypso (1956), became the first LP in history to sell more than a million copies. But even as his entertainment career flourished, Belafonte pursued a radical political agenda, as evidenced by the fact that he looked to the anti-American communist Paul Robeson to be his “mentor.”
In the late 1950s, Belafonte became a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. and a stalwart in the civil-rights movement. In 1960, Belafonte was a founding member — along with such notables as Julian Bond, John Lewis, Bernice Johnson Reagon, David Forbes, James Lawson, Joyce Ladner, and Dick Gregory — of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the 1960s, Belafonte performed benefit concerts on SNCC’s behalf. In 1965 he arranged an expense-free trip to Guinea for SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael and ten other members of the group. There, they took lessons in revolution from the country’s pro-communist president, Sekou Toure.
By the 1980s Belafonte was making statements that revealed his affinity for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and bitter skepticism about the Regan administration’s endgame in the Cold War. “If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy,” Belafonte once said, “you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro!”
But Belafonte’s fondness for communists was not limited solely to Castro. For example, the late Leo Cherne, head of the International Rescue Committee, once wrote that Belafonte had “played a significant relief role in Ethiopia at a time [the 1980s] when [that country] was under the control of the left wing dictator Mengistu, at the very time that the Castro military forces were playing an active support role.”
Also in the eighties, Belafonte praised Soviet “peace efforts” around the world. Speaking in October 1983 at a “World Peace Concert” run by East Germany’s official Communist youth organization, Belafonte gave his blessings to the Soviet-sponsored “peace” campaign pushing unilateral Western disarmament — at a time when the USSR was deploying SS-20 missiles in East Germany. Meanwhile, reported The New York Times, Belafonte “attacked the  American invasion of Grenada and also criticized the scheduled NATO weapons deployment” of Pershing 2 missiles in West Germany, which were intended to offset the Soviet missile offensive.
In 1994 Belafonte was an initiator of the International Peace for Cuba Appeal, an affiliate of the International Action Center. Other prominent initiators included Cuban Intelligence agent Philip Agee, professor Noam Chomsky, and Democratic congressmen John Conyers and Charles Rangel.
In 1997 Belafonte was the featured speaker at the 60th Anniversary celebration of the “Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” American volunteers who had served in the Spanish Civil War as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators.
In June 2000 Belafonte was a featured speaker at a rally in Castro’s Cuba, honoring the American Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He lauded Cuba’s efforts to “kee[p] the principles the Rosenbergs fought and died for alive.” Tears, one observer reported, “streaked down” Belafonte’s face “as he recalled the pain and humiliation his friend [Paul] Robeson had been forced to endure” in 1950s America.
In a March 2001 concert/fundraiser at New York’s Lincoln Center, Belafonte appeared on behalf of the Center for Cuban Studies, a pro-Castro U.S. organization dedicated to countering the effects of American policy toward Cuba.
In October 2002 Belafonte stirred controversy when, during an interview on a San Diego radio station, he intimated that Secretary of State Colin Powell, by virtue of his service in the George W. Bush administration, was a traitor to African Americans. In a subsequent interview on Larry King’s CNN program, Belafonte elaborated:
“There’s an old saying [that] in the days of slavery, there [were] those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master. Colin Powell was permitted to come into the house of the master … in the service of those who not only perpetuate the oppression, but sometimes design the way in which it is applied.”
Belafonte expressed similar sentiments regarding then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, whom he likened to a Jew “doing things that were anti-Semitic and against the best interests of her people.” Three years later, Belafonte revisited this theme of “race treason” by black Republicans when he said, “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Riech” — implying that such Jews were, at that time, the equivalent of conservative blacks in the post-2000 Bush administration.
In January 2003 Father Michael Pfleger, a liberation theologian and the pastor of Saint Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago, invited Belafonte to be a guest speaker at a Sunday Mass. During his talk there, Belafonte blamed the United States for the events of 9/11: “We [Americans] move about the world arrogantly, calling wars when we want, overthrowing governments when we want. There is a price to be paid for it — look at 9/11. [That] wasn’t just bin Laden. Bin Laden didn’t come from the abstract. He came from somewhere, and if you look where … you’ll see America’s hand of villainy.” Because Belafonte has so frequently expressed such sentiments, the historian Ron Radosh describes him as “an unreconstructed Stalinist — a man who firmly, profoundly believes that America is evil.”
Speaking at a 2004 Human Rights Award Ceremony in San Francisco, Belafonte reiterated that millions of people around the world were afflicted by disease and poverty as a direct result of “vast America’s villainy” and the U.S. “military industrial complex.”
In an August 2005 interview with Cybercast News Service, Belafonte stated that “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich.” Belafonte then likened those Jews to African American “tyrants” who, in modern times, were working in the Bush administration.
In September 2005 Belafonte spoke at a town hall meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus‘s 35th Annual Legislative Conference. The event featured some of the leading figures of the Democratic Party and was nominally devoted to the subject of “eradicating poverty.” (A webcast of the meeting can be accessed here.) When he stepped to the podium, Belafonte impugned Republicans for “punishing” blacks for their resistance to segregation; he denounced the American criminal-justice system and its “prisons filled with victims of poverty”; he condemned U.S. foreign policy for having “made a wreck of this planet”; and he exhorted blacks to rise up and “let George Bush and the Christian Right know that their legs have just been amputated.”
Also in 2005, Belafonte founded Gathering For Justice, an organization focused on ending what Belafonte viewed as widespread racial discrimination in the American criminal-justice system.
In a keynote address he delivered at Duke University on Martin Luther King Day 2006, Belafonte declared that America’s long history of oppression had begun centuries earlier, with the “Indian genocide.” Amplifying on this theme, he asserted that America’s foreign policy had always been “built on the demise of the poor.” And he lamented that the U.S. not only had the “largest prison population in the world,” but also that, as a result of a premeditated government policy, blacks were being incarcerated in grossly disproportionate numbers.
Also in January 2006, Belafonte told The Raleigh News and Observer that the U.S. government was no more honorable than al Qaeda or the 9/11 hijackers: “When you have a president that has led us into a dishonorable war [in Iraq], who has killed tens of thousands, many of them our own sons and daughters, what is the difference between those who would fly airplanes into buildings killing 3,000 innocent Americans? What is the difference between that terror and other terrors?” In a subsequent CNN interview, Belafonte told newsman Wolf Blitzer: “Al Qaeda tortures. We torture. Al Qaeda’s killed innocent people. We kill innocent people.”
In January 2006 as well, Belafonte characterized the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the “new Gestapo.” When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Belafonte to clarify whether he believed that what DHS “is doing to … some U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism is similar to what the Nazis did to the Jew[s], Belafonte replied:
“Well, if you’re taking people out of a country and spiriting them someplace else, and they’re being tortured, and they’re being charged without – or not being charged, so they don’t know what it is they’ve done. It may not have been directly inside the Department of Homeland Security, but the pattern, the system, it’s what the system does. It’s what all these different divisions have begun to reveal in their collective.”
That same month, Belafonte — along with Danny Glover, Cornel West and others — had a friendly meeting with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whom Belafonte described as a humane and capable leader who had “cut the ranks of his country’s unemployed in half.” “We’re here to tell you [that] not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution,” Belafonte said to Chavez. Further Belafonte referred to President Bush as “the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world” — for having launched the war in Iraq “without cause, and with treacherous intent.” (On other occasions, Belafonte likened the Bush administration to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.)
In 2008 Belafonte signed a statement circulated by the Partisan Defense Committee calling for the release of the convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. The petition praised Mumia for being a “former Black Panther”; lamented that he had been “framed” as a murderer and sentenced to death by a racist U.S. justice system; and denounced capital punishment as “a legacy of chattel slavery and a barbaric outrage … [which] the lynch rope [had] made legal.”
Belafonte was a featured speaker at an October 2, 2010 “March on Washington,” organized by One Nation Working Together. Other speakers included such luminaries as Deepak Bhargarva, Luis Gutierrez, Wade Henderson, Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous, Van Jones, Al Sharpton, Richard Trumka, and Marian Wright Edelman.
In a 2011 HBO documentary, Belafonte stated that he not only saw “great similarities” between the modern-day United States and “what went on in America” during the “crucifying days” of the [Joseph] McCarthy era, but that America was “headed to places that can go well beyond” what had occurred under McCarthy. “Today we have something that is most horrific written under the banner of ‘homeland security,’” said Belafonte. “The extremes of those laws allow any citizen to be whisked away without anyone’s knowledge, without charging the individual, and hiding them for an indefinite period of time…. That is the basis of a totalitarian state.”
In October 2011, Belafonte — emphasizing his view of America as a profoundly racist nation — condemned black Republicans “like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, and Condoleezza Rice” for “claim[ing] that black people are deluded when they talk about oppression,” and for “argu[ing] that people can magically ‘overcome’ their plight.”
In December 2012, Belafonte was a guest on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC television program. During his appearance, Belafonte disparaged “this lingering infestation of really corrupt people who sit trying to dismantle the wishes of the people, the mandate that has been given to Barack Obama.” “And I don’t know what more they want,” Belafonte added. “The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and put all these guys in jail [for] violating the American desire.”
During his acceptance speech for an honor he received at the NAACP Image Awards in February 2013, Belafonte spoke out on the subject of gun control. Asserting that the “group most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African Americans,” he suggested that white opposition to stricter gun-control measures was rooted in racism:
“We [blacks] are the most unemployed, the most caught in the unjust systems of justice, and in the gun game, we are the most hunted. The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our black children. Yet, as the great debate emerges on the question of the gun, white America discusses the constitutional issue of ownership, while no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.”
Addressing the congregation in a November 2013 service at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, Belafonte directly compared the conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch to Klansmen:
“They make up the heart and the thinking in the minds of those who would belong to the Ku Klux Klan. They are white supremacists. They are men of evil. They have names. They are flooding our country with money. They’ve come into to New York City. They are beginning to buy their way in to city politics. They are pouring money into Presbyterian Hospital to take over the medical care system. The Koch brothers, that’s their name.”
In July 2014, when Israel was involved in a military operation designed to stop Hamas terrorists in Gaza from continuing to fire scores of potentially deadly rockets into the Jewish state each day, Belafonte lamented that Israel was killing so many innocent Palestinian children and freedom fighters. By contrast, as historian Ron Radosh noted, “He said not one word about the rockets of Hamas crashing down on Israel, the desire of Hamas to destroy the Jewish state, and the failure of Hamas to accept the Egyptian proposal for a peace treaty, one that was accepted by Israel and the United States.”
In September 2014, Belafonte was a guest speaker at “Growing Up Locked Down,” a three-day Juvenile Justice Conference presented at The New School in Manhattan by Justice League NYC. This event featured workshops and panels that addressed subjects ranging from the state of childhood incarceration to the media’s reportage on the issue. Another noteworthy speaker was Cornel West.