Cause Celebre

Good morning. It’s Thursday, August 29, 2019. Fifty-six years ago today, an impressive collection of Hollywood stars made their way back to Los Angeles. These A-listers had come to the nation’s capital in support of civil rights. At the March on Washington, some had performed songs, others had given interviews, and all had listened to Martin Luther King Jr. and the other speakers on the National Mall.

Harry Belafonte, acting in concert with the Rev. King, had helped arrange it, and the multiracial cast of musicians, directors, actors, and other performers who answered the call constituted a virtual Hall of Fame of the American arts.

Fifty-six years ago, folk singer Joan Baez kicked off the official program at the Lincoln Memorial with a soulful rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Peter, Paul, and Mary asked, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” and Odetta Holmes, a now nearly forgotten musical star, brought the audience to tears with her soaring rendition of the hymn “Oh, Freedom.”

“If they ask you who you are,” she belted out, “tell them you’re a child of God.”

Josephine Baker, who’d come from France, her adopted country, also performed at the gathering. In its next-day coverage, appearing on this date in 1963, the New York Times quoted her before quoting Martin Luther King.

“I want you to know,” she told the crowd, “that this the happiest day of my life.”

After Joan Baez sang, so did Bob Dylan. He was deeply committed to the movement and had recently written a ballad called “The Death of Emmett Till.” Ossie Davis performed at the Lincoln Memorial that day too, along with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. James Garner, who met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally seven years earlier, marched as well — holding hands on that day in solidarity with Diahann Carroll.

Just listing all the names of the celebrities who came to Washington for the 1963 civil rights march takes some doing. Writer James Baldwin was there, along with baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, Hollywood producer Frank Mankiewicz, song-and-dance man Sammy Davis Jr. and actress Ruby Dee.

Many of the African-American members of Harry Belafonte’s posse, the great calypso singer included, had been politically active in civil rights for years. Among this crew were Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, famed bluesman Josh White, and Sidney Poitier, who that year starred in “Lilies of the Field,” a role that would win him a Best Actor Oscar, making him the first African-American to cross that bar.

Poitier was hardly the only leading man (or Academy Award winner) on the “celebrity plane” Belafonte had chartered. Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward all were there, as was Charlton Heston, who shined a bit brighter than the rest of the Hollywood crowd. He was taller than the others, sure, and he’d played Moses in the movies, but that wasn’t really it.

Heston had campaigned in 1956 for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and in 1960 for John F. Kennedy. That was safe enough. But for those who made their living in the motion picture industry, the anti-communist congressional hearings in Washington and the purge of suspected party members in Hollywood had a deterrent effect on the political activities of filmmakers and actors. Yet at the same time, a great movement was building in the late 1950s and into the early 1960s — and many of the nation’s biggest motion picture stars wanted to lend their fame and faces to the civil rights cause. Charlton Heston was one of the first.

In May of 1961, he had picketed a segregated Oklahoma City lunch counter at a now-forgotten demonstration that was one of hundreds of such actions building up to the March on Washington. The day of the ’63 march, the U.S. Information Agency filmed a roundtable discussion with Heston, Belafonte, Poitier, Brando, and Baldwin. Asked why he is marching, Heston steals the scene.

“Two years ago, I picketed some restaurants in Oklahoma, but with that one exception — up until very recently — like most Americans I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties,” he recalled. “But like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now.”

In later years, “Chuck” Heston, as his intimates called him, would break with the Democratic Party over what he saw as its liberal excesses. He’d campaign for his friend Ronald Reagan, and become a leading proponent of Second Amendment rights. Along the way, he’d be shunned and scorned by liberals, many of whom were not yet born when Heston was marching for freedom.

Heston himself liked to say he supported the rights of racial minorities before it was fashionable in Hollywood. Upon his 2008 death, African-American scholar Earl Ofari Hutchinson concurred: “He did, and we honor him for his monumental contributions to the civil rights movement.”

A fancy funeral was held in a scenic Pacific Palisades Episcopal church and attended by 300 people, many of them California luminaries. But a small vigil was also held for him in South Central Los Angeles, at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King boulevards.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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