Harry Belafonte was ‘a major influence’ on his Chicago friends, they fondly recall

Belafonte, the singer-actor-activist who died Tuesday at 96, left a legacy that went beyond the entertainment world — he was a fierce advocate for civil rights.

SHARE Harry Belafonte was ‘a major influence’ on his Chicago friends, they fondly recall
Harry Belafonte spoke at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and became close friends with its pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger.

Harry Belafonte spoke at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and became close friends with its pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger.

Sun-Times Media file photo

Harry Belafonte, the legendary performer and civil rights activist who died at 96 in New York on Tuesday, frequently visited St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and became close friends with its pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger, who fondly remembers their talks about civil rights and activism.

“He’s had a major influence on who I am today,” the priest said. “We spent so much time together.”

Belafonte was “very charismatic,” said Kimberly Lymore, an associate minister at St. Sabina.

“He was kind of sitting at the feet of history,” Lymore said. “We’d sit around after church and he would talk for hours just about the Civil Rights Movement and things that we needed to do moving forward to get the young people involved in the movement.”

Belafonte would visit St. Sabina often until his health began deteriorating, Lymore said. Belafonte celebrated his 90th birthday at the church.

Pfleger said he spoke to Belafonte several months ago. Despite his health conditions, Belafonte was “still talking about issues and how we needed to keep fighting,” the priest remembered.

Harry Belafonte visited St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and became close friends with its pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger, who recalls their talks about civil rights and activism.

Harry Belafonte visited St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago and became close friends with its pastor, Rev. Michael Pfleger, who recalls their talks about civil rights and activism.

Sun-Times Media file photo

Belafonte was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

The singer donated some of his own money to bail King out of jail, Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a statement Tuesday. He remembers Belafonte for his fierce advocacy.

“Harry Belafonte mentored us and he remained a mentor to us. As he rose as the public leader, he taught us how to survive,” Jackson remembered. “He was not just a champion. He was a hero. We stood on Belafonte’s shoulders. He was our most senior statesman.”

Belafonte supported Chicago’s civil rights efforts despite a lack of personal connection to the area. The Sun-Times archives show that he headlined a rally for Jackson’s — at the time — new organization, Rainbow PUSH, in March of 1972.

He used his influence in the entertainment industry to bring others to his causes.

“To help fund Dr. King, we organized an 11-City tour, with Aretha Franklin and Andrew Young,” Jackson said. “Belafonte influenced many, many people in Hollywood in the height of their careers to join the Civil Rights Movement.”

“He never compromised and he never gave up,” Pfleger said. “While he was bold and courageous he had a loving gentle character and an amazing sense of humor.”

Pfleger remembers a particularly impactful joke.

Pfleger had shown Belafonte an album of his that he owned when Belafonte offered to sign it, saying, “If times get hard and you have to sell this on eBay — call me first.”

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