Harry Belafonte’s unfinished fight

Once, more than half a century ago, he was the handsomest man in the world.

In 1959, Belafonte was playing Vegas for $50,000 a week. Every night he looked out on an ocean of white. Black people couldn’t have afforded his show even if Vegas hadn’t been segregated. But TV? Black folks had TVs. One night on television reached more black people than a year of Sundays at the Apollo. TV, Belafonte thought, would be his hammer. He’d use the idiot box to break chains. Revlon ordered another five specials.

But after just one more show, Charlie Revson, scion of Revlon, had a problem. “The white guys down in the South don’t want it,” he said. “They’ll black out the station.” It was the backup singers, the dancers, he said. Some black, some white. Choose, said Revson. Didn’t matter which—​so long as they were all the same. He figured Belafonte would probably prefer the color, but really, Revlon wanted to respect his freedom. You’re the artist, Mr. Belafonte. So choose. Black or white.

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