Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement – Part I


  • practical benevolence, esp. charity on a large scale – Oxford English Dictionary
  • the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes – oxforddictionaries.com
  • goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially: active effort to promote human welfare – merriam-webster.com
  • an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes – merriam-webster.com

I’m reading Harry Belafonte’s “My Song” which is an absolute delight. For me, it’s one of those books that – although you’d like to devour it in one shot because it’s that captivating – you have to savour in small doses because it’s also very insightful and thought provoking. So as I have been reading my way through, there have been a few sections that I’ve had to re-read and absorb before moving on. What does this have to do with diversity, inclusion, philanthropy? Everything.

Based on the definitions of philanthropy above, numerous acts of goodwill and charity are happening all around us everyday – some well-known, others not so much and still many others, completely unnoticed. I’d like to use this opportunity to share with you excerpts of “My Song” which tell part of one of the many philanthropic stories throughout history that a Google search might not necessarily produce.

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 Mississsippi. “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.

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… 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.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“At least fifty thousand dollars.”

I told him I’d get it, one way or the other.

I had to think hard about where that money might come from. 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 try 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.
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? Galvanized by the shocking news of 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. 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. I’d hoped to raise $100,000, but $70,000 would have to do. I felt pretty good about that sum of money.

My Song- A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance
Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson

Pretty heavy stuff. And while the overriding moral of the story is about social justice, it also draws attention to key principles that guide our work in fundraising today – why people give, ways to give, prospecting, making the ask, etc. And – most of all – learning to celebrate our successes – big or small – instead of focusing on the fact that we didn’t make budget.