Harry Belafonte, who died Tuesday at the age of 96, was an activist long before he became an artist, he once said.
His political consciousness was shaped early on by the experience of growing up poor, the son of a Jamaican mother who worked as a domestic servant.
During the civil rights movement, he used his star power to fight against injustice, raising money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cofounded and led. He helped bail out activists who had been jailed and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
In a 2013 interview, Belafonte told CNN how the Ku Klux Klan had warned activists that those who showed up for the march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 could be killed.
Still, he marched alongside King and invited other artists to join him. “I don’t think we had any thought of not moving forward, as a matter of fact, that was the only thing we could do or, to completely abandon our movement and just accept the status quo,” Belafonte said.
But his relationship with the civil rights movement wasn’t always simple. He wasn’t shy to express his frustration at the expectations Black Americans put on him as a civil rights activist, while not always supporting his music career, or talking openly about the nation’s progress following the civil rights era and the inaction of Black leaders.
In his own words, Belafonte discusses his close but complex relationship with the civil rights movement and Black America:
He grew tired of the many expectations
After King’s death in 1968, Belafonte expressed frustration in an interview with The Washington Post about his prominent role in the civil rights movement.
“I’d like to take my family, go and live in Africa and be able to stop answering questions as though I were a spokesman for my people,” he said. “I hate marching, and getting called at 3 a.m. to bail some cats out of jail.”
‘Now I am more cautious’
In 1972, Belafonte recounted to The New York Times about marching with King in 1963 and how his feelings about the fight for civil rights had changed.
“I felt very optimistic at the time of the March on Washington,” Belafonte said. “Now I am more cautious about my optimism. After all, at the time of the march, we had more to work with. We had Martin Luther King, the Kennedy Administration, the Peace Corps. There were certain kinds of honorable commitments and victory seemed not too far off. But then we began to see how strong the adversary was. We had assumed that when blacks and whites marched together in favor of peace and accommodations, the rest of the nation would rise up and profoundly support the cause of justice. Instead, the marchers met with tear gas and clubs and killing and Kent State and an intensification of the Vietnam War. It is not what we had fantasized at the beginning. I have not abdicated but, as I say, I am more cautious now about how I go about things.”
‘This should be over’
In 2017, Belafonte discussed in The New York Times how police killings and attacks on voting rights made him feel discouraged by the state of civil rights in the country.
“When I took up with Martin,” he said. “I really thought, two, at best three years this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, and the Supreme Court just reversed voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute – we have no movement.”
Criticism of Black elected officials
Belafonte expressed concern about the accomplishments of Black people after being elected to leadership positions. In The Washington Post in 1978, Belafonte questioned what Black leaders were doing for their own community.
“We got into Congress and became congress people rather than Black leaders … got into government and became bureaucrats rather than black leaders. I think we have to stop complaining about white folks and ask, what are we doing in terms of our own initiatives. What have we done other than run some kind of ego games on each other?”
‘Black people distanced themselves from me’
In 1996, Belafonte told The New Yorker how despite being a civil rights activist, few Black people attended his performances. “I never saw so many white people in my life,” Belafonte said.
“Let me tell you something. I don’t know of any artist at my level who has ever been as much on the line for black liberation as I have and has as few black people in attendance at anything that he does as I do,” he said.
“Even before, because of my social and political position, most black people distanced themselves from me,” he said. “Because I’m a tough package. In California, I walked into a place and somebody said, ‘Here comes Mr. Conscience,’ and all the cocaine left the room – you know? On the other hand, there’s always been that noise and roar, and that approval I think in many ways saved me. Because, whether it was out of envy or jealousy or just plain fear, there was always that – I’ve always been out of the loop. I didn’t grow up in the church, I didn’t grow up in Mississippi, I didn’t come out of the blues valleys of the Mississippi Delta. But most black Americans don’t support anybody.”
CNN’s Leidy Cook and John Blake contributed to this article.