The phone rang late in the evening in my New York apartment. It was the night of August 4, 1964. A night of grief and anger for all of us in the civil rights movement, but especially those in Mississippi. "We've got a crisis on our hands down here," the young man on the line said. "We need help."
At the start of that fateful summer, hundreds of volunteers, most of them students, many of them white, all of them knowing how dangerous the work would be, had come down from northern universities to register black voters and support rural blacks in pursuit of their civil rights. They were fanning out along the front lines of a civil rights war, unarmed in a state of seething segregationists.
Mississippi's police stood ready at the slightest pretext to beat them bloody and throw them in jail. The Ku Klux Klan might well do worse. That day, we all learned just how much worse. The bodies of three volunteers, missing since June 21, had been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman — two of them white, one black — had been arrested on an alleged traffic violation, briefly jailed, then allowed to drive off, after dark, into a KKK ambush. All three had been beaten, then shot. Chaney, the black volunteer, had been tortured and mutilated.
I'd helped raise a lot of the money to launch Mississippi Freedom Summer. I'd called all the top entertainers I knew — Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Dick Gregory, and more — to ask that they give money directly or participate in benefit concerts. That money bought a lot of gas and cars, housing and food. But now more was needed. A lot more.
The original plan had called for students to do two- week shifts, then go home and be replaced by others. With the ominous disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, every shift had insisted on staying. Now that the bodies had been found, all those volunteers voted to stay not just through summer, but into the fall as well. "It's good they're staying," explained Jim Forman, the young man who called me that night. Jim was the de facto head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of several civil rights groups down there. "Because if they leave now, or even at the end of August, the Klan will say it intimidated them into going, and the press will play it that way. And if they all stay, we can get thousands of more voters registered. The problem is we don't have the resources to keep them all here."
"What do you need?" I asked.
"At least fifty thousand dollars."
I told him I'd get it, one way or the other. "How soon do you need it?"
"We're going to burn through the rest of our budget in seventytwo hours."
Before he rang off, Forman told me one other thing. "This could get really ugly," he said quietly. "I'm hearing a lot of people say enough is enough, the hell with nonviolence. They're taking up guns. I'm worried they're going to take matters into their own hands."
I had to think hard about where that money might come from, and how I might get it to Greenwood, Mississippi. I could tap my own savings for the whole $50,000 — I'd written a check to SNCC for an amount not much smaller than that in its early days to help establish it, and others since then. For me it was "anything goes," but I owed it to my family to keep us financially safe. Paul Robeson, the extraordinary actor, singer, and activist whose path I'd tried to follow my whole adult life, had given so much money to social causes that he'd left himself vulnerable to his enemies, chief among them the federal government, a formidable force led by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau
of Investigation, when he was blacklisted as a communist in the late 1940s. With Senator Joseph McCarthy riding shotgun, the federal government had cowed Carnegie Hall and other American venues into not hiring him, then seized his passport so that he couldn't earn a living performing abroad. Eventually Paul ran through his savings and slid into a deep place of sadness. I never forgot that. Somehow, I'd have to raise most of this money from others. In two days, maybe three. Then there was the matter of how that money would get to Mississippi. I couldn't just wire it and have a black civil rights activist go to the local Western Union office to ask for his $50,000, please. He'd be dead before he drove a mile away. So would a white college volunteer. As for banks, those fine institutions owned and operated by Mississippi's white power elite? No way.
The money would have to be brought down in cash. And unless I could come up with some brighter idea, I'd have to take it down myself.
My wife, Julie, started pulling together a New York fundraiser at our West End Avenue apartment. I flew to Chicago. Irv Kupcinet, as powerful a columnist in his city as Walter Winchell was in New York, gathered dozens of guests at his home on a day or two's notice. White guests, bearing checkbooks. Why did I, as a black performer, have such sway with Irv and his friends? Our friendship traced back to my clubcircuit days as a young troubadour in the early fifties, but our personal history was just one part of it. Without quite knowing how I did it, I had some power to reach a hand across the racial divide. That, I knew, had as much to do with the moment as with me. Galvanized by the shocking news of the volunteers' murders, Irv's guests thrust cash and checks at me — $35,000 worth — as if I was the personal emissary of the civil rights movement. Which in a way, in that place and on that evening, I was. After making a trip to Montreal, I had another $20,000.
When I got back to New York, Julie and I took in $15,000 more from our own apartment fundraiser. Time was running out: I'd hoped to raise $100,000, but $70,000 would have to do. I felt pretty good about that sum of money. I felt even better now that I had a sidekick for the trip: my pal from our days together as struggling actors in Harlem, Sidney Poitier.
Sidney and I were like brothers. Born within eight days of each other, we shared the same West Indian heritage, and the same burning desire to break out of grinding poverty. Incredibly, both of us had achieved our dreams as entertainers. Sidney was the top black actor in Hollywood. I'd found my first successes as a singer, but had gone on to my own share of Broadway and Hollywood triumphs. We were, to put it simply, the two top black male entertainers in the world. Like brothers, we were also fiercely competitive, and had our differences, both political and personal. For starters, Sidney was a lot more cautious than I was. "What kind of protection are you going to have?" he asked warily when I asked him to come.
"I talked to Bobby about it," I said. Robert F. Kennedy was still serving, after his brother's assassination, as U.S. Attorney General under President Johnson. He'd directed me to Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. Both understood the risk I was taking. In Mississippi's vicious climate, the chances of a Klansman taking a potshot at me were actually pretty high. Knocking off that rich Negro singer from New York who thought he knew what was best for the South? Ten points! Marshall heard me out on the phone, and took down my itinerary. I conveyed all this to Sidney, maybe presuming a bit more from my conversation with Marshall than I should have. "Marshall's on it," I told him. "That means federal security every step of the way."
"Every step of the way," Sidney echoed.
"Right," I said. "Besides, it'll be harder for them to knock off two black stars than one. Strength in numbers, man."
Excerpted from My Song by Harry Belafonte. Copyright 2011 by Harry Belafonte. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.