By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

In the 1950s when James Baldwin and Loraine Hansberry revealed the challenges of the Black experience due to systemic racism in “The Amen Corner” (1954) and “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), or when Harry Belafonte broke barriers and won an Emmy in 1960 for his sketches and songs in his barrier breaking, show “Tonight with Belafonte,” or when Nina Simone fearlessly and passionately sang “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964, they were putting their careers- and truly their lives- on the line to fight for civil rights.  While leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis strategized, organized and exhorted thousands to stand with them, many famous artists were key in appealing to the masses, raising funds and ultimately achieving further civil rights after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  From Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, to Sidney Poitier, several Black artists risked it all to use their platforms as a form of activism and encourage others to join the fight for justice and the vote. 

Artists such as James Baldwin, and many more, risked their careers and lives to fight for the Black vote and civil rights. (Courtesy Photo)

The Art(ist)

Art, indeed, has a way of moving people in a manner that could not be achieved even by great orators like King and Lewis.  Perhaps it’s the chills one gets from a particular melody or lyric, or the experiences that tug on heartstrings in novels, plays and movies, or the thoughts that fill one’s head after looking at a cartoon or painting.  

“Historically, music got the Negro slaves through slavery.  What else did? Other than God and music, that was it.  Those songs ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ and ‘Deep River,’ and all those songs gave them hope that there was a better time coming,” Gospel legend Richard Smallwood told the AFRO via Facebook Live.  “So I think that music gives us that hope and that fortitude to keep fighting on.” 

Chatting with the AFRO the same day of Rep. Lewis’ funeral, Smallwood reflected on the late Congressman’s thoughts on music and the struggle for the Black vote and civil rights.

“I’m still heartbroken that we lost Congressman Lewis, someone who was just a champion for justice, for the vote, and we’re still fighting for the vote today… I remember him saying that if it wasn’t for the music, that they would’ve never had the power and the strength to go through some of the things that they went through in the 50s and 60s, because it’s something about music that brings hope to whatever you’re fighting for,” Smallwood explained.

After her passing in 2018, Lewis himself reflected on the “Queen of Soul,” who as a teen toured with him and King’s crew as they marched and rallied in different cities.

“If it hadn’t been for Aretha — and others, but particularly Aretha — the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings,” Lewis said in a Rolling Stone article in 2018. “She lifted us and she inspired us.”

The Artist

Now taking liberties, not just anybody could’ve led the beginning of “We Shall Overcome,” and moved a crowd like “Re Re,” because let’s be real, Franklin could sing about daydreaming and inspire folks- she was just that good.  It’s not just the art.  It’s the artist(s).

The artists pushed the movement forward.  They had leverage with people in higher places and money to organize, provide food and shelter for protestors and get around the country rallying for justice.

Artists such as Harry Belafonte, and many more, risked their careers and lives to fight for the Black vote and civil rights. (Courtesy Photo)

But they also had the passion, the fortitude and burning desire to make a difference.

Belafonte, in his autobiography My Song, which details his more than six decades of activism, talks about Paul Robeson as an inspiration to be an artist activist. Robeson, a well-educated, outspoken performer, who was blacklisted for his own activism, considered artists “the gatekeepers of truth,”- a mantra that has kept Belafonte in the fight for justice as a nonagenarian.  

As “gatekeepers of truth,” Black artists revealed struggle and pain, beauty and resilience through art. 

“Alabama’s gotten me so upset.  Tennessee made me lose my rest.  And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam,” Nina Simone sang during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, when over 700 volunteers, many being White, rallied to register Black voters in Mississippi.  It was during the Mississippi Freedom Summer when three volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were White and from New York, and James Chaney, who was Black and a local, went missing and were ultimately murdered after investigating a church burning.  While the fight was tough, with violence and more than 17,000 Black Mississippians attempting to register to vote and only 1,200 being successful, the artists, like Nina Simone in “Mississippi Goddam,” fought back.

They fought back by telling the truth and being on the frontlines.  James Baldwin worked to register voters in the South and marched on Bloody Sunday in March of 1965- the televised moment that caught the nation’s attention regarding the harsh realities of racism, police brutality and Jim Crow.  Baldwin once wrote: “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”  

Baldwin told such truths, and it was in seeing that Bloody Sunday, and witnessing the police’s indiscriminate violence despite the presence of celebrities and great leaders, that the nation woke up.  Just days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Congress emphasizing the need for voting rights legislation.  In August, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

The Sacrifice 

Black artists paid a major price for their outspokenness and activism.  

“I think of Eartha Kitt as someone else who put it on the line, spoke truth to power and was subsequently blacklisted. The consequences for speaking publicly, the threat of blacklisting and cancellation, the personal and financial strain that puts on an artist- it’s tremendous,” said Chelsea Harrison, associate producer, curator and production assistant at the National Black Theatre in New York. 

In the early 1960s Kitt became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and was strident in her own values surrounding justice, even refusing contractually to perform for segregated audiences. Shortly after voting rights was achieved, in 1968, the same year King was assassinated, Kitt was outspoken against the Vietnam War, which resulted in her being blacklisted and losing multiple contracts and gigs. It took her moving abroad for years and a hit concert at Carnegie Hall six years later, before she began working in the U.S. regularly again.

“I understand fear of speaking on things politically. But Eartha’s story is proof to me that talent and skill are undeniable and that you can survive putting it on the line. In fact, you can solidify your place in history.”

The Future

“Thinking generationally, as a future ancestor, what do you want to be remembered as? Someone who simply maintained their comfort? Or someone who was a living embodiment of liberation,” Harrison asked.

Despite the risk, fears and sacrifices, artists, like Beyoncé in “Black is King” and her outspokenness on the importance of Black Lives and voting, are still using their platforms to promote change.

Artist activists (and citizen activists) are still needed in 2020.  

“Civic engagement, being involved in the streets of your community, is our moral obligation as human beings. We are social creatures and it’s time for us to evolve to a place of taking care of one another. With this pandemic we see how loveless and uncaring American culture and our institutions can be. I think the revolution is our radical re-engagement with the world we live in. We must collectively re-engage with our society, our communities to survive and to evolve,” Harrison told the AFRO. “I think of Audre Lorde’s essay ‘The Uses of the Erotic.’ How do we make change exciting? Cool? Sexy? Artists! Artists make the revolution sexy, we make justice and liberation irresistible. That’s our job now and forever.”

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor