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Besides singer and actor, Belafonte leaves another legacy: civil rights activist

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tributes continue for Harry Belafonte. He died yesterday at the age of 96. He was a Hollywood actor and singer who popularized calypso music in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O (BANANA BOAT SONG)")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Work all night on a drink of rum. Daylight come, and we want to go home. Stack banana till the morning come.

MARTIN: He was also active in the civil rights movement and a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here he is speaking at the March on Washington in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELAFONTE: Any society which ceases to respect the human aspirations of all its citizens courts political chaos and artistic sterility. We need the energies of these people to whom we have for so long denied full humanity.

MARTIN: Here to talk with us about his legacy is publisher and author Lavaille Lavette. She wrote a children's biography of Belafonte. Good morning. Thank you so much for joining us.

LAVAILLE LAVETTE: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So at the top, we heard part of his speech at the March on Washington. How else was he active in the civil rights movement?

LAVETTE: Well, Mr. Belafonte was a leader that challenged us. You know, he challenged young artists to do more. He challenged everyone to do more. Just so grateful for his presence and grateful for the things that he helped us to become, you know? Become a better person, become a better nation. So...

MARTIN: What are some of the things people may not know about his legacy, particularly people who only know him as an entertainer?

LAVETTE: He had a tremendous connection with young activists, with young people. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He wasn't afraid, even in his later years, to challenge artists to do more. So I think that - you know, I think that people, particularly our young people today, didn't know that he was more than an entertainer.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about the role - do you remember that he had a - I think we would call it a cameo, but it was a very impactful scene in Spike Lee's film, like "BlacKkKlansman," for example, where, in the space of just a couple of minutes, he talked about the legacy of, you know, extrajudicial killings and things of that sort. But he was just mesmerizing even in just a few minutes on screen. You know, why do you want kids to know - in particular, to know more about Harry Belafonte? Mentioning earlier that you wrote a children's book about him.

LAVETTE: Yeah. I think that, you know, we must never forget. And I think that with the hustle and bustle of the world, the digital age, people on their computers and their devices, that we tend to forget about the struggle and the people that actually paved the way for us. And I think that it was very important for me to honor him, you know, this great warrior of social justice. I wanted people, particularly young people and young parents, to know about his life and legacy and what he stood for.

MARTIN: All right. That is Lavaille Lavette. She's the author of "Harry Belafonte: A Little Golden Book." Lavaille Lavette, thanks so much for joining us.

LAVETTE: All right. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) All my days, I will sing in praise of your forest, waters, your shining sand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.