Singing Lena Horne's Praises

Lena Horne died this week at the age of
92. More than just a brilliant singer and actress, she was a pioneering
civil rights activist, breaking racial barriers for generations of
African-Americans who have followed her. She fought segregation and
McCarthyism, was blacklisted, yet persisted to gain worldwide fame and
success. Her grandmother signed her up as the youngest member of the
NAACP as a 14-month-old.

Hers is the story of the 20th century, of the slow march to racial equality, and of remarkable perseverance.

Horne's career began in Harlem's renowned
Cotton Club, where African-Americans performed for an exclusively white
audience. She joined several orchestras, including one of the first
integrated bands, and then landed the first meaningful, long-term
contract for an African-American actor with a major Hollywood film
studio, MGM. Her contract included provisions that she would not be
cast in the stereotypical role of a maid. She was never given full
acting roles, though, only stand-alone singing scenes. "I looked good
and I stood up against a wall and sang and sang. But I had no
relationship with anybody else," she told The New York Times in 1957.
"Mississippi wanted its movies without me. It was an accepted fact that
any scene I did was going to be cut when the movie played the South."
During the World War II years, she toured with the USO, entertaining
troops. At Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas, she learned she would
be performing for a segregated whites-only audience. Afterward, she
gave an impromptu performance for the African-American troops and was
again angered when German POWs imprisoned at the base were allowed to
crowd into the mess hall. She insisted they be thrown out.

Horne, in a 1966 Pacifica Radio interview,
recalled a watershed moment in Cincinnati. She was touring with a band,
and on the night of the boxing match between Joe Louis and Max
Schmeling of Nazi Germany, Horne, who didn't care for boxing, found
herself backstage with the band members, around the radio, rooting for
Louis: "I said, 'He's mine.' And I didn't want him to be beaten. 'He's
ours.' I think that's the first I remember ever identifying with
another Negro in that way before. I was identifying with the symbol
that we had, of a powerful man, an impregnable fortress. And I didn't
realize that we drew strength from these symbols."

Paul Robeson, the great African-American
singer and activist, had a profound influence on Lena Horne. In the
Pacifica interview, she recalled, "Paul taught me about being proud
because I was Negro ... he sat down for hours, and he told me about
Negro people.... And he didn't talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro
chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that's
why I always loved him." The association with Robeson, a proud,
outspoken activist, contributed to Horne's blacklisting during the
McCarthy era.

James Gavin, who wrote the definitive biography of Lena Horne, "Stormy
Weather," told me: "Lena Horne was a very brave woman and is not given
credit for the activism that she did in the 1940s, at a time when a lot
of the black performers that she knew were simply accepting the
conditions of the day as the way things were and were afraid of rocking
the boat and losing their jobs. And Lena never hesitated to speak her
mind." Gavin described Horne's appearance at the 1963 March on
Washington, where she took the microphone and unleashed one word,
"Freedom!" She appeared with the great civil rights leader Medgar Evers
at an NAACP rally, just days before he was assassinated. She worked
with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching legislation, and supported
SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National
Council of Negro Women (led by Dorothy Height, another civil rights
leader, who died last month at the age of 98).

Horne's biographer Gavin says she was
filled with anguish for not doing enough. But Halle Berry thinks
otherwise. When Berry became the first African-American woman to win
the Academy Award for best actress in 2001, she sobbed as she held up
her Oscar in her acceptance speech: "This moment is so much bigger than
me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.
... And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a
chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column

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