He provided money to release Dr. King and other civil rights activists from prison. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963. His spacious apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan became Dr. King’s second home. And he quietly maintained an insurance policy on Dr King’s life, with his family as beneficiary, and donated his own money to ensure the family was taken care of after Dr King was murdered in 1968.
(Nevertheless, in 2013 he sued Dr. King’s three surviving children in a dispute over documents which Mr Belafonte said were his property and that the children belonged to the King estate. The lawsuit was settled the following year, with Mr. Belafonte retaining possession.)
In an interview with The Washington Post a few months after Dr King’s death, Mr Belafonte expressed ambivalence about his prominence in the civil rights movement. He would like, he says, “to be able to stop answering questions as if I were the spokesperson for my people”, adding: “I hate walking and being called at 3 in the morning to get cats out of prison” . But, he says, he accepted his role.
The challenge of racism
In the same interview, he noted with regret that although he sang music with “roots in the black culture of Negro Americans, Africa and the West Indies”, most of his fans were white. As frustrating as it may have been, he was much more upset by the racism he faced even at the height of his fame.
Her role in the 1957 film “Island in the Sun”, which contained the suggestion of a romance between her character and a white woman played by Joan Fontaine, sparked outrage in the South; a bill was even introduced in the South Carolina Legislature that would have fined any theater showing the film. In Atlanta for a benefit concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1962, he was twice refused service at the same restaurant. Television appearances with white female singers – Petula Clark in 1968, Julie Andrews in 1969 – angered many viewers and, in Mrs Clark’s case, threatened to cost him a sponsor.
He occasionally drew criticism from black people, including suggesting early in his career that he owed his success to his light skin (both his paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother were white). When he divorced his wife in 1957 and married Julie Robinson, who had been the only white member of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe, The Amsterdam News wrote, “Many Negroes wonder why a man who waved the flag of justice for her race should turn from a black woman to a white woman.