(April 29, 2023). In August 1955, Carolyn Bryant falsely accused Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Chicago, of verbally threatening, grabbing and whistling at her while in her family’s store in Mississippi.
Days later, her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J. W. Milam, kidnapped and heinously murdered Till and dumped his 14-year-old body in the Tallahatchie River. The kidnapping happened at the home of Till’s cousins, whom he was visiting in the Deep South and who had to witness his horrible abduction.
The case had nationwide interest in 1955, particularly given Till’s young age. But it was when Jet magazine ran the infamous photo of Till’s grossly disfigured face and body lying in his casket—along with the swift acquittals of Bryant and Milam the following month, thanks largely to Bryant’s court testimony—that the interest turned to shock, grief and anger, emotions that inspired a generation of young Blacks (and non-Blacks) to join the growing Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and beyond.
Just two years before Till’s murder—in July 1955–an image on the cover of another famous Black-owned magazine under the Johnson Publication Company—Ebony—created a national stir when it featured fast-rising pop-folk-calypso singer and actor Harry Belafonte, a Black Jamaican-American, hugging white actress Janet Leigh alongside her actor husband Tony Curtis.
It was the first time in American history that a Black man had been featured on the cover of a national publication hugging a white woman, an occasion that had signaled some progress was being made in race relations in this country.
The symbolism of Belafonte’s and Leigh’s very public gesture in 1953 and the fatal private interaction between Till and Bryant just two years later is hard to overstate, especially when it was the latter that motivated many Blacks, including Belafonte, to action in the years to come.
The connective thread that runs between the two events is only strengthened by the fact that both Belafonte and Bryant died this week on the same day, nearly seven decades later: April 25, 2023. Belafonte was 96; Bryant (whose new last name was Donham) was 88.
Belafonte was a celebrity whose star had been rising since the late 1940s when he began performing in a jazz club called the Royal Roost in Midtown NYC as a fill-in. Ironically, it was his inability to find work as an aspiring Black actor that led to one of the musicians at the club inviting him to try singing.
Belafonte did just that, and without any formal training and only the support of his musician friends backing him, his career eventually took off. By the mid-1950s, not only was he recording albums for major label RCA Victor, but his acting career also got a boost. He starred in films like Bright Roads and Carmen Jones opposite late actress Dorothy Dandridge. They were the first two of his 16 motion pictures.
But it was his music career—and his civil rights activism—that proved most prolific and defining.
In 1956, he accomplished two major firsts in the music business—not just for Black people, but for all races.
When Billboard magazine, the music industry’s longstanding trade publication, inaugurated its first weekly best-selling albums list in March 1956, the LP sitting at the top was Belafonte, the singer’s self-titled second studio album.
The album chart had existed before that, but never in a weekly format. Belafonte spent the first six weeks of the new format’s existence at the top before yielding to label mate Elvis Presley’s own self-titled debut album exactly 67 years ago (April 29, 1956).
As if that wasn’t enough, Belafonte’s followup LP, Calypso, which contained the classic “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” sped to No. 1 the same year and in the process became the first album ever to sell a million copies. It went on to spend 31 weeks at the top, something only two other non-soundtrack albums have ever accomplished: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (also 31 weeks; 1977-78) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (37 weeks; 1983-84).
As his album’s title suggests, Belafonte recorded songs in the calypso style of music, fusing Caribbean-influenced rhythms and vocal intonations with folk themes. This unlikely combination proved successful in an era when blues and rock-and-roll otherwise dominated.
In fact, it was that juxtaposition that perplexed and ultimately disappointed Belafonte, who had found himself playing before all-white audiences in the Jim Crow south. In 1950, he had notoriously cut short a two-week engagement in Florida because of the legalized racial separation there.
Yet, it was his white audience that paid the bills. His albums topped the pop charts because they bought them, something Belafonte discussed years later when recalling his role in the civil rights movement.
In an interview for The New Yorker in 1996, Belafonte was quoted as saying of his shows, “I never saw so many white people in my life” before adding, “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…as I do.”
Indeed, Belafonte had used his star power and his position to fight injustice. He aligned himself with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and raised money for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also helped bail out jailed activists and was prominent in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, led by King.
Despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Belafonte worked undaunted to ensure that the march was a success. He later got into a life-threatening car chase with the KKK in 1964 as he and others delivered cash to freedom volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi.
By that time, the hit albums had subsided for Belafonte who recorded 30 studio LPs throughout his career. The music business had moved on to the British Invasion (led by the Beatles), Motown, Memphis soul (Stax and Atlantic), and later psychedelic rock.
But he still found ways to make statements in furtherance of racial harmony and, once again, a prominent example involved a public display of interracial harmony with a white woman.
In 1968, he appeared on British singer Petula Clark’s network television special and, after Clark touched his arm, was the target of more racist calls for censorship.
Decades later, he helped organize “We Are The World,” the 1985 all-star charity recording by USA for Africa with proceeds intended to address famine in the mother continent. He further used his celebrity status to help end apartheid in South Africa.
In his later years, Belafonte wondered aloud whether or not all of the actions of himself and others from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s were in vain, noting that some of the progress of those years seemed to be reversed.
In 2017, he told The NY Times: “When I took up with Martin, I really thought, two, at best three years this (institutionalized racism) should be over. Fifty years later he (MLK) is dead and gone, the Supreme Court just reversed voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets.”
What Belafonte didn’t know then was that a case eerily similar to that of Till’s would be playing out in 2023, again in Mississippi.
In February, the remains of a young Black man named Rasheem Carter were found in Taylorsville, Mississippi with his head severed after he reportedly told his mother that three truckloads of white men were trying to kill him. That case is still under investigation.
Indeed, when Carolyn Bryant died in Westlake, Louisiana on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, any hopes of holding her or anyone else associated with Emmett Till’s death accountable vanished with her. With her death Tuesday, the last person who knew exactly what happened between her and Till while they were alone in her store 67 years earlier is now gone, and we may never know the full truth.
When actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte died in NYC that same day, the world lost not only a talented entertainer, but a history-making musician and, more importantly, a great humanitarian.
R.I.P. Harry Belafonte, March 1, 1927 – April 25, 2023.
DJRob (he/him/his), who swims in a pool of irony, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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