Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement

Stars for FreedomEmilie Raymond’s Stars for Freedom turns our understanding of the civil rights movement on its head. Though popular narratives emphasize the movement’s grassroots origins, it’s equally important not to overlook the role that a handful of African American celebrities played in not only helping to fund the movement, but also in serving as ambassadors, liaisons, cheerleaders, and even foot soldiers for the  cause.

I’ve chosen to highlight this particular section from Emilie’s book because it covers a period exactly fifty years ago from this summer—a time that still resonates loudly with current events. Fifty years ago, the Voting Rights Act was passed; recently, however, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of it. Similarly, exactly a half century ago this summer, rioting broke out in the Watts district of Los Angeles over police treatment of a black man; today, we see similar incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore as well as widespread outrage through the #BlackLivesMatter social movement.

Along with these similarities, what also stands out to me about the excerpt is Emilie’s ability to simultaneously view the movement from multiple levels:  we see comedian Dick Gregory on the streets of Watts risking life and limb with protesters; we see Harry Belafonte hustling behind the scenes writing letters and organizing last-minute benefits; and we see the grassroots Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grappling with whether it had sold out by collaborating with glamorous celebrities. 

The result is an excerpt that, I think, demonstrates how deftly Emilie blends civil rights and entertainment histories—and it provides just a small glimpse of the exciting book she has written. I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I enjoyed working with Emilie on this amazing book!

Ranjit Arab, senior acquisitions editor, UW Press

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and Dick Gregory commemorated the event at the Sumter County Courthouse lawn in Americus, Georgia, with a group of avid African American registrants. Surrounded by a cordon of white state troopers in white helmets who were dispatched to protect them, Gregory observed, “When everybody gets to voting, we are going to get us some black faces under those white helmets. And it ain’t going to be from no suntan neither.” He foretold of the dramatic effect voting rights would have on the daily lives of African Americans.

Only one week later, the comedian rushed to the Watts district in Los Angeles, where a race riot was threatening to destroy the city. Sparked by the arrest of a young black man for drunk driving, the altercation had grown into a widespread armed confrontation with the Los Angeles police and the National Guard. Wanting “to help in any way I could,” Gregory drove into the riot area near a housing project and was shocked by the “stark and horrible expression of raw violence.” He started to walk between law enforcement and the rioters when “the bullets started to fly.” When he was shot in the leg, Gregory rushed into the street, yelling “Alright goddamn, it. You shot me, now go home!” With a burning wound, Gregory was in disbelief that “after all the times I’d been arrested by red neck deputies in the past four years, here I was shot by a black man in California.” He charged forth, believing “somebody had to stop it.” On that street corner at least, the rioters retreated. Across town, Belafonte, already booked at the Greek Theater, continued to perform nightly when most other public venues were closed. Admittedly “apprehensive” about potential problems in an audience of five thousand, he also saw it “as a challenge” to show a capacity for unity in such dreadful circumstances. Belafonte even brought in youngsters from Watts to give them safe haven. The riot lasted six days and resulted in thirty-four deaths and $40 million in property damage. August 1965 foretold of the movement’s impending “crisis of victory” and of the stars’ varying roles in its progression.

Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sammy Davis, Jr. at the “Broadway Answers Selma” benefit show at the Majestic Theatre.

Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sammy Davis, Jr. at the “Broadway Answers Selma” benefit show at the Majestic Theatre.

For the time being, however, the leading civil rights organizations optimistically planned their futures, and celebrities were instrumental in their efforts. In March 1965, the New York [FOS Friends of SNCC] office held a workshop emphasizing their new fund-raiser of choice: the house party. Although such events were admittedly “small, exclusive receptions,” the group still called their efforts “a grassroots public relations program.” They instructed workshop attendees to ask themselves “Is the money there?” before planning a party. “Regardless of their goodwill, a constituency must be people of means or the funds realized will be commensurately small,” the literature explained. The program emphasized cultivating “prominent” and “wealthy” individuals, as well as members of the media, and highlighted obtaining artists for the parties. Another development from the conference included the creation of a contact information sheet (with addresses and phone numbers) for the artists willing to sponsor SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] events. This long-awaited list could be distributed among the FOS groups and made for more streamlined planning. It also reflected the importance of Selma to bringing more celebrities into the movement on a more permanent basis. The list included the regulars from the 1964 house parties, as well as those individuals, such as Tony Bennett and Shelley Winters, who had marched in Selma, and those, such as Alan Arkin and Eli Wallach, who had participated in Davis’s Broadway benefit. FOS groups went on to hold an unprecedented number of star-studded house parties in the coming months.

The successful house parties led to benefit concerts devoted to SNCC alone. With the help of Julie Belafonte and Diahann Carroll, the New York FOS organized an elegant black-tie dinner and dance at the New York Hilton Grand Ballroom on April 25, 1965, to benefit freedom schools and voter registration drives in the South. The program featured Harry Belafonte, Brando, Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr., Streisand, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. Tickets cost $100 per person, and a number of celebrities and wealthy New Yorkers sponsored entire tables at $1,000 each. SNCC netted an estimated $80,000 from the event, and held a similar dinner, again hosted by Julie Belafonte and Carroll, the following year.

The organization also succeeded at having more parties in Los Angeles. Brando headlined one party at a Hollywood home in June 1965. Poitier cohosted a SNCC fund-raiser with Belafonte, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory and Richard Burton, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Mike Nichols at a posh Beverly Hills discotheque in August. The event resembled a movie premiere. Such guests as the actors James Garner, Lauren Bacall, and Lee Marvin, and the filmmakers Stanley Kramer, Arthur Penn, and Robert Blumofe arrived wearing tuxedoes, long gowns, and lavish jewelry. The event was held only a few days after the Watts riot, and Poitier used it to plead for funds, arguing the disturbances were “only a symptom of the underlying social diseases eating away at the fabric of society.” The stars shouted their pledges, challenging one another until they reached $50,000. The party was written up in the New York Times for the “surprising number of Hollywood luminaries” willing to publicly support the “most radical and controversial of all the major civil rights organizations.”

Since the parties targeted only a select few, “for the balance of the community,” SNCC used “broadside direct mail appeals for money,” but it employed celebrities for this task as well. Belafonte penned a series of letters in the spring and summer of 1966, alerting recipients of the continued impoverished and terrorized conditions of the rural South and pleading for funds. Ultimately, the organization raised $637,736 in 1965, its highest income to date, and double what it had raised in 1963 before house parties and close collaboration with celebrities became routine.

Despite this impressive fund-raising record, SNCC did not always manage its celebrity supporters effectively. This largely stemmed from a lack of organization outside of the New York office. FOS groups failed to coordinate with the New York staff members, and wealthy supporters complained of being inundated with requests for parties and benefits. Betty Garman, a fund-raiser in the New York office, admitted, “I don’t know they are sending letters off and thus can’t explain that this is not the way to obtain talent for concerts, etc.” She expressed confidence only in the Bay Area (San Francisco), Boston, and New York groups as being “competent” to handle major events; Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington was “where smaller events could be planned.” A Philadelphia FOS volunteer, however, complained, “We cannot understand how it is that New York can easily have a dozen top stars where not one can be available for Philadelphia.” She reported that they had started plans for parties, “but on one condition. We must have top name stars like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., [opera star] Leontyne Rice, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston” or “big fund raising in Philly is a dead issue.” Meanwhile, a report on fund-raising at the Baltimore FOS office expressed disappointment that despite its proximity to Washington and its potential to obtain “big-name people,” the full-time staffer there “somehow . . . does not follow up.”

Moreover, SNCC bungled some lucrative opportunities. A celebrity billiard tournament to be chaired by James Garner, cochaired by Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Sammy Davis, Jr., and held in Los Angeles in May 1966 had to be aborted within a week of the event due to disorganization and friction among the Los Angeles FOS activists. One embarrassed SNCC organizer admitted, “I feel very badly about this because I have had contact with all these stars in the past and as you can understand, it can leave a feeling of ill-will.” The event would have brought in a number Hollywood’s white stars, such as James Coburn and Dennis Hopper, and rising black entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Ivan Dixon, who were rather new to the movement, as well as many others who had done little civil rights work since the Prop 14 campaign. Fifty-seven celebrity participants had to be notified of the cancellation. SNCC likewise failed to follow through on a benefit concert with Frank Sinatra and benefit screenings of the short film Ivanhoe Donaldson (1964) about one of its own activists. The film’s distributor offered to screen previews in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, but after seeing little follow-through, complained about “the lack of any action at SNCC.” These lapses resulted largely from SNCC’s unusual makeup as an organization without a membership or a traditional hierarchical structure.

They also perhaps reflected a growing discomfort within SNCC about its connection to wealthy liberals. In a Northern staff meeting in 1965, several activists raised concerns that SNCC was becoming “elitist” due in part to its income stream. Indeed, after the fund-raiser in Beverly Hills, Belafonte acknowledged, “The irony of partying at a discotheque was not lost on anyone.” Stokely Carmichael became SNCC chair that same year. He was openly critical of nonviolence, and Belafonte felt Carmichael and his cohorts had begun to view him as “part of the establishment,” which in the 1960s was tantamount to treason. James Forman denied that guilt-ridden liberals constituted SNCC’s support. “I think they are sophisticated people who understand the importance of what we are doing,” he asserted. “These are people who have been red-baited, who pulled out of politics in the late ’40s, and have been waiting for a new generation of political activists.” He cited Belafonte as an example, saying, “Harry Belafonte, who is wealthy, is more radical than anyone in SNCC. He really understands the social forces involved.” Longtime activist Bob Zellner said, “Most SNCC folks were grateful for all political and financial help from whatever the source.” Betty Garman, another SNCC activist engaged in fund-raising, concurred, saying that the fund-raisers were “helping us to tap resources we could never reach ourselves because of who we are and how we work. On the other hand,” she continued, “there is some concern that the people who give wouldn’t give to us if they knew more about who we are and how we work.”

SNCC attempted to deal with these contradictions and critiques. Under pressure from New York FOS volunteers to hire a salaried professional fund-raiser, Forman repeatedly refused, saying “that would destroy the philosophy of the organization.” When those at the winter 1965 fund-raising conference continued to insist on such a position, Forman took on the responsibilities, but not a pay increase, himself. Meanwhile, Betty Garman encouraged FOS offices to reach out to “all sections of a community” in broader programs. She challenged the advice pushed at the fund-raising conference in terms of pursuing elite donors. Acknowledging that “house parties work,” she also insisted “they work on all levels of a community. Some people think of a house party as a way to raise BIG money—which means a fancy house and a star and expensive food and free drinks and NAME people. But there is no reason to feel,” she continued, “that a house party cannot be successful if it raises $50 or $100 or $200,” as long as SNCC held many such parties. Thus, SNCC could “involve people,” meaning a broad cross-section of average folks. Others in the organization expressed concern that if students wanted to begin direct action in the urban North, they could well find themselves in conflict with the very liberals that supported the Southern projects. This anxiety led SNCC activists to brainstorm how to reach more blacks in Northern ghettoes and in the South, and, ironically given SNCC’s suspicion of the NAACP, the black middle class. This debate would come to naught later in the decade due to radical policy changes within SNCC, but it foreshadowed a growing critique of liberal celebrity activism and its paradoxes.

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