This year’s African American history month comes at a critical moment in American race relations: Black Lives Matter protests and dialogues continue across the country; Ava DuVernay’s film Selma is garnering critical acclaim and its Oscar nominations and purported slights are generating debates about racial equity–or lack thereof–in Hollywood; plans are underway for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the march from Selma and other watershed moments in Civil Rights history. In recognition of these ongoing dialogues, historian Emilie Raymond, author of Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement (forthcoming May 2015) elaborates upon the historical context of the film Selma. In this guest post, as in her book, Raymond argues that black celebrities made critical contributions to the success of the Selma march, as well as to the Civil Rights Movement in general.
In the concluding scenes of the film Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Southern Christian Leadership Conference associates celebrate the news that Harry Belafonte is chartering a plane at his own expense to bring in the celebrities Dick Gregory, Odetta, the trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, and others for the last leg of the Selma march to Montgomery. None of the entertainers expect to be paid for the appearances.
“Day-O!” one reverend cries. “Freedom come and it won’t be long,” the others answer, in a play on Belafonte’s famous “Day-O,” also known as “The Banana Boat Song.” A montage of historical footage shows Sammy Davis, Jr., and Belafonte amongst the crowd in Selma.
What is remarkable about Selma is its nuanced approach to the civil rights movement. The film shows the triumphs and tragedies of the freedom struggle, King’s convictions and self-doubts, and the debates within the movement regarding leadership, local organizing, and tactics. However, the film focuses on King at the expense of a number of other activists who laid much of the groundwork in Selma or filled other roles important to the success of the Selma to Montgomery march. While this focus represents legitimate artistic choices, there is obviously more to the story than is presented on film.
One such aspect was the role of celebrities in Selma. The “Day-O” scene alludes to the SCLC’s familiarity with Belafonte, but does not explain it. The positioning of the conversation to the film’s conclusion also makes it seem like celebrity involvement only came at the end of the march, but celebrity involvement served important functions throughout the occasion.
In fact, this was at least Gregory’s third trip to Selma, as he had begun working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on its voter registration projects there as early as 1963, projects which Belafonte had helped finance. SNCC experienced extreme violence and retaliation, and Gregory’s presence had helped boost the morale of the activists and bring publicity to their project. After King arrived in Selma, Gregory returned as well to help lead 3,200 marchers out of Selma to begin the 54-mile walk into Montgomery.
After “Bloody Sunday,” Sammy Davis, Jr., announced his intention to produce “Broadway Answers Selma,” a massive fundraising benefit in New York City’s theater district, which took place after the conclusion of the march. Although Davis had organized countless benefits for the movement in the past, his pledge to raise $150,000 (the equivalent of over $1 million today) set a record. The popular Broadway stars Carol Burnett, Barbra Streisand, Eli Wallach, Lou Gossett, Diana Sands, Alan Arkin, a young Martin Sheen (who played the judge authorizing the march in the film), and over sixty more performers all donated their services.
The film does not actually show the march itself, which took five days and was limited to 200 marchers on the vast portion of the two-lane highway. Rainstorms and a hostile local population made the journey arduous, and the marchers slept in hastily-prepared campsites on land donated by local African Americans.
Two celebrities completed the entire walk from Selma to Montgomery: the actors Gary Merrill (known for All About Eve) and Parnell Roberts, star of television’s Bonanza. They helped other volunteers erect and break down the huge tents at each campsite along trek. The singers Odetta and Pete Seeger arrived on the third night of the march to lead sing-a-longs.
The vast number of celebrities arrived on the fourth night of the march to participate in the concert organized by Belafonte. Ossie Davis skillfully harnessed the enormous crowd for a four-hour spectacle of songs, sketches, and speeches. Other performers included Nina Simone, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Anthony Perkins, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Winters, Ruby Dee, Nipsey Russell, and George Kirby. Most of them stayed for the final walk into Montgomery.
Belafonte led another impromptu concert the next day on the Alabama state capital plaza with Joan Baez, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and several other singers. Providing filler for the news cameras and entertaining the marchers as the rest of the crowd filled in, their performance was a festive and rousing build-up to King’s stirring concluding address.
Moviegoers know that films can’t possibly explore every historical detail, yet compelling films like Selma do highlight important trends, just as in the “Day-O” scene. Indeed, celebrities boosted morale, raised money, and brought positive publicity to the Selma campaign, functions that Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dick Gregory, and Sidney Poitier had been providing for the civil rights movement since the late 1950s. These Stars for Freedom played important roles as unique activists with the visibility, influence, and connections to help make the struggle for racial progress a national movement with the money and legitimacy to successfully address its goals.
Emilie Raymond is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of “From My Cold, Dead Hands”: Charlton Heston and American Politics.