World-renowned singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte has been chosen to be the recipient of the NAACP’s 97th Spingarn Medal, the organization announced at its Image Awards.
Belafonte will be honored at the Spingarn Dinner during the NAACP Annual Board Meeting at the New York Marriot Marquis Hotel on Feb. 15.
The Spingarn Medal is the civil rights group’s highest tribute, which recognizes “outstanding and noble” achievement by African-Americans. Belafonte will be honored for his decades-long service to the civil rights community.
“Harry Belafonte has pursued a career of extraordinary accomplishment in the performing arts, during which he has unremittingly worked to fulfill his deep commitment to the American principle of equal opportunity and justice for all,” NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said in a statement. “He is an ultimate exemplar that race need be no insurmountable barrier to achievement.”
Best known for popularizing "The Banana Boat Song" (“Day-O”) and for becoming the first African-American to win an Emmy (he captured the statue for Best Variety Special for his first solo TV special “Tonight with Belafonte”), Belafonte is a multi-talented star who also appeared in a slew of films.
Belafonte parlayed his popularity into service to the civil rights movement. He provided for Dr. Martin Luther King’s family and was one of the leader’s confidantes. He financed or otherwise raised funds to bail out many civil rights protestors, helped fund the Freedom Rides and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and assisted in organizing voter registration drives and the 1963 March on Washington.
Belafonte helped organize the multi-artist performance of “We Are the World” in 1985, part of an initiative to raise funds for Africa. In 1987 he was named a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
Belafonte was often bold in his political commentary. He was a member of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and, in more recent years, was also a vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration. He was particularly excoriating in his statements about what he called Bush’s “morally bankrupt” foreign policy, such as the war in Iraq.
“Mr. Belafonte has never been afraid to speak his mind, even when it might have put his career in danger,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement. “His combination of charisma and courage, artistic talent and intellectual prowess has made him an icon for the ages and a powerful ally for civil and human rights advocates across the globe.”
Belafonte has been honored many times by such diverse groups as the American Jewish Congress, the NAACP, the City of Hope, Fight for Sight, The Urban League, The National Conference of Black Mayors, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the ACLU, the State Department, the Boy Scouts of America, Hadassah International and the Peace Corps.
The Spingarn Medal, instituted in 1914 by then-NAACP Chairman Joel E. Spingarn, has been awarded to luminaries such as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, NAACP Chairman Emeriti Julian Bond and Myrlie Evers-Williams, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King.