By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
Moving the country forward, just as much as the likes of Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., activism through the work of Black entertainers has long been a staple of change.
Though not always as overt as a March on Washington, Black artists have long nurtured the roots of civil and human rights through their music, paintings, plays, poems and all the spoils of fame.
From Lena Horne to Harry Belafonte, and James Baldwin, the contributions are at times subtle, but nonetheless significant.
“When you can use the stage as a platform to tell your story and be heard there is a form of freedom,” said Janice Short, a professor of theatre arts at Morgan State University since 1995.
Short said many entertainers naturally become activists for their community because they are singing, writing, and creating about the world around them.
“Theatre is a mirror for life,” she said. “Most people have a life story that includes politics. There are civil rights stories that many times we don’t realize are there. We look at the work on stage, we go for entertainment, and then we learn something.”
The examples are endless.
In 1951, William Branch released “A Medal for Willie,” putting racism on display as he told the story of a Black American soldier, killed while fighting for a country that hated him.
He did it in one act.
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry put housing discrimination on Broadway for all the world to experience the test and trials of the Younger family, desperately trying to improve their lot in a country hellbent on keeping them down. Her play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” has stood the test of time and remained relevant for millions of impoverished Americans.
Short told the AFRO entertainers have a special ability to make an impact with their art because the act of performing exposes spectators to hard truths from the safety of their seats in the audience.
“Art gives you a safety net where you can get close enough to witness it, without actually being a part of it,” she said. “It still affects you almost in the same way and it allows you to have empathy.”
When Short thinks of influential entertainers that helped the Civil Rights Movement, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee come to mind.
“They were a part of the American Negro Theatre and that company existed just so Black people could tell their stories with an honest depiction of the Black story and Black life.”
On the literary front, the Movement wouldn’t have packed the same punch without the likes of Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin.
Writers from that era were integral in lobbying for civil rights, while also making the toils of Black life in America leap off the page.
Poet Rebecca Dupas, who holds a doctorate in post-secondary and adult education, said passing down the work and stories of Black artists who advocated for civil rights is imperative for students.
“For the most part, I learned about the greatness of White writers in school,” said Dupas, who is now a Black author herself.
“It is important for there to be representation for us. We need to see ourselves, see our greatness, and know that we are contributing through our art.”
Using the archives of the AFRO American Newspapers, which is available digitally dating back to 1902, readers can get a clear understanding of how Black artists weaponized their talent and influence as dedicated soldiers for the cause.
The archives also weaves together a very clear picture of how Dr. King used the fame of Black entertainers to garner support for his cause. In 1963 alone he was present at countless concerts and protests organized and promoted by entertainers.
In August of 1963, the paper recorded Johnny Mathis breaking down racial barriers- and the stage- as Birmingham’s first mixed audience rocked the night away.
Dr. King spoke to the audience, and at the end of the night, Mathis, Clyde McPhatter, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and a host of other entertainers turned over more than $3,000 to help finance the Movement.
Everyone, from Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier to Dick Gregory and Sammy Davis Jr., came together to demand equal rights, freedom and opportunity at the March on Washington. Mahalia Jackson sang, Ruby Dee read a poem, and Josephine Baker flew in from Paris to hear of King’s dream.
That same year, Lena Horne can be found speaking of how she found it “impossible” to “ignore the larger racial struggle,” taking place all over the country.
“The struggle is becoming a revolution and I want to be a part of it,” she said.
In 1965, the AFRO reported on the death of Lorraine Hansberry and the trust money “left to civil rights organizations.”
Hansberry wrote in her own words just three years prior, that “Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent.”
In a letter to Kenneth Merryman, a White southerner, on April 27, 1962, Hansberry wrote that Black people “must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps—and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”
The work of artists undoubtedly added to the blueprint for musicians, poets, writers and actors who understand no revolution happens without the art that expresses the struggles and triumphs of a people.
Local artist Jonathan Gilmore recently put the cultural contributions of Black entertainers on stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The vocalist said it is important to recognize the resiliency and innovation of Black Americans.
“We took a foreign language and with syncopation, call and response, blue-notes, polyrhythm and so much more we made our ‘struggle’ seem palatable,” said Gilmore. “Being marginalized has led to Black people imagining, creating, performing in ways the world could not imagine.”