The Guardian • Issue #2051

Harry Belafonte: Civil Rights and the United Fruit Company

Harry Belafonte at the 2010 Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner.

Harry Belafonte at the 2010 Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner. Photo: George Tolbert (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Harry Belafonte (Harold George Bellanfanti Jr.) died on 25th March, aged 96. He is remembered not only as a Black singer and actor, but also as an important civil rights activist in the segregated South. He became the first recording artist to sell more than one million copies of an album in a year, outselling  Elvis Presley.

Belafonte appeared in numerous movies including, Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). He later won a Tony award for his work on Broadway and was the first Jamaican American to win an Emmy. He performed at President John F Kennedy’s inauguration gala.

Belafonte joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem, where he met Paul Robeson. Both the FBI and the CIA kept files on him.

Nearly seventy years ago, the first Freedom Riders journeyed through the South to challenge the segregation of buses, bus terminals, lunch counters, toilets, drinking fountains, hotels and entertainment areas. The activists were confronted by violent police and their dogs, while being filmed by the international press. They were attacked by mobs of ultraconservative Whites and their homes and Black churches bombed.

What was little known by white audiences was that the “King of Calypso” was one of Martin Luther King Jr’s confidants. Belafonte’s role as a financial recruiter began in 1956, on the first anniversary of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. He financially supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Birmingham Campaign, supporting the Freedom Rides with its costly political campaigns that required bail money, travel costs, and hospital bills. He established close relationships with Sam Cooke who wrote the inspirational anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, and Nina Simone, who recorded Mississippi Goddam. He later became friendly with the Kennedy family after the 1960 election, when John F Kennedy became President.

After King’s assassination in 1968, Belafonte served as an executor of King’s estate and chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial Fund. He continued to support national and international civil rights and humanitarian issues up to his death.

Belafonte was a strong supporter of the Cuban revolution, and received a Medal of Friendship from the Cuban state for his decades of Cuba-US relations.

Recorded in 1956, Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) was Belafonte’s biggest hit, reaching number five on the Billboard charts in the US in 1957. Day-O is a call and response work song, telling of the dock workers working the night shift loading bananas onto ships. The song describes the dreadful conditions faced everyday by the banana industry workers, working long hours with little pay. It was sung by Jamaican dockworkers, who typically worked at night to avoid the heat of the sun. When daylight arrived, their boss, the “tallyman” would tally the bananas before their shift ended.

Day-O is a protest song that inspired workers in their fight against the US corporation, the United Fruit Company, which in 1954 had requested the US government topple the Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán government in Guatemala. Che Guevara was in the capital, Guatemala City, at the time and left for Mexico where he joined Fidel Castro.

United Fruit dominated the banana industry throughout the Caribbean and Central America. By 1912, that company owned 350,000 hectares of banana producing lands in Jamaica, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia. The company inspired the term “banana republic,” due to its political interventionist policies and the control of the business sectors throughout the Caribbean basin.

In November 1928, 25,000 workers on the banana plantations in Ciénaga, Colombia began a strike against the United Fruit Company. On 6th December it was violently put down with 3,000 workers killed. The massacre inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude and led to left-wing activity throughout Latin America.

Yale professor in African-American studies, Daphne Brooks, interviewed Belafonte in 2017. She asked what he meant by “the camaraderie of poverty?” He replied, “When one who has experience poverty has to deal with the information of poverty, it’s often spoken about in terms of its cruelty and pain, as it should. But camaraderie comes out of poverty. There’s a struggle people in poverty go through that you don’t experience in any other class construct. We understand each other’s plight.”

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