“These men were Hollywood stars and yet here they were risking their lives for freedom, democracy and the least of their people in the lynchingest state in the nation. This is what I am thinking of today as we mark Sidney Poitier’s passing. This is legacy.” – Nikole Hannah-Jones
The year was 1964, and Mississippi was a cauldron of white supremacist terrorism. A year earlier, civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been shot and killed outside his own home by White Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith. The FBI had just discovered the battered bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, six weeks after they disappeared. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee desperately needed funds to continue the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer.
Within two days, singer and activist Harry Belafonte had raised $70,000. The problem was how to get it 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,” Belafonte wrote in his memoir. He turned to his close friend and fellow activist, Sidney Poitier, who died last week at the age of 94. “It’ll be harder for them to knock off two black stars than one,” Belafonte told Poitier. “Strength in numbers, man.”
They landed in at the tiny airstrip in Greenwood, Mississippi, with $70,000 in small bills stuffed into a black doctor’s bag and slid into a car driven by a young SNCC volunteer named Willie Blue. As they pulled away from the airstrip, a fleet of pickup trucks followed close behind. They urged Blue to drive faster, but the young activist knew better.
“That’s exactly what they want us to do,” Blue told them. “They got a state trooper up there waiting in his car with the headlights off, ready to arrest us for speeding. He takes us to the station, lets us out in an hour, and even more of the Klan be waiting for us. That’s how they work. That’s how those boys [Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner] got killed.”
The lead pickup began ramming the back of the car, but Blue kept the car in the center of the road, veering left each time the pickup tried to pull alongside. As a convoy of cars carrying SNCC volunteers drew near on the road ahead, the pickup trucks retreated, and gunfire rang out.
Shaken and exhausted but unhurt, Poitier and Belafonte arrived at an Elks hall where they were met with the “screams of joy” of hundreds of volunteers.
“I am thirty-seven years old,” Poitier told the crowd. “I have been a lonely man all my life . . . because I have not found love . . . but this room is overflowing with it.”
That extraordinary journey was hardly Poitier’s first encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, a confrontation with the Klan altered his path in life and launched his legendary acting career. At 15, he moved to Miami from in the Bahamas, where he had lived almost entirely among Black people.
“Never in my early years was I told, ‘Be careful how you walk down the street,’” he told Oprah Winfrey. “I never had to be conscious of stepping off the sidewalk to let someone pass. So I’ve got to tell you, I had no idea what was waiting for me in Florida.”
Asked to deliver a package to a stately home, he simply knocked on the front door instead of going around to the back. For this offense, local Klansman threatened his life. His terrified older brother put him on a bus bound for New York City, where he eventually answered a newspaper ad for actors placed by the American Negro Theater.
As an actor, he was determined not to be defined by his race, but he pointedly refused roles that perpetuated negative stereotypes. His charm and grace, both onscreen and off, helped to open hearts and minds as the nation challenged segregation and discrimination.
As the first Black man to win the Academy Award for acting, he blazed a trail for an entire generation of artists and set a standard for excellence that elevated the medium as a whole.
The National Urban League join his many friends and millions of fans around the world in grieving his passing.