Sidney Poitier refused to be defined by race from the start of his decades-long career, but his best-known performances advanced the depiction of Black actors and pushed audiences to confront racial tensions in America.
“Racism is painful and we have to be clear-eyed about it, not just victims of it. And, on the other side, victims of racism are charged with the responsibility to have as clear an eye as they can to examine what they perceive to be the sources of racism,” the legendary actor told the Vancouver Sun in 2000.
Here are some of the late actor’s other reflections on racism and segregation before, during and beyond the civil rights era.
Racial tensions in the South initially came as a shock for Poitier when he arrived in Florida to live with relatives at the age of 14 in the 1940s. Growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, his identity had never been linked to skin color and he quickly pushed against that idea.
“I couldn’t go into certain stores and try on a pair of shoes. I had to travel in the back of a bus and I had never had to do that before. It was a big disappointment to me,” Poitier said on CNN’s Larry King Live in 2008.
“Before I got to Florida, I had the opportunity through my mother and my dad to have set some kind of foundation as to who I was,” he told Oprah Winfrey in a 2000 interview.
“I was not what I was required to be in Florida. I was not that. I couldn’t be that. I was taught that I had basic rights as a human being. I was taught that I was someone. I knew we had no money, still, I was taught that I was someone. We had no electricity and no running water, still, I was taught that I was someone. I had very little education – a year and a half, in fact, was all the schooling I was exposed to –still I knew that I was someone,” he added.
About being a Black movie star in Hollywood
In a 2000 interview for The Observer, Poitier said being a Hollywood star did not shield him from the struggles a Black man in America had to face in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I had to think twice or three times about every step I took,” Poitier said.
“I was in a culture that denied me my very existence. And I had no forces behind me. When I walked the streets outside of ‘The Neighbourhood’ which I was confined to, I had to be constantly on the alert. The America I am speaking of was a different place back then: the dominant culture did not care about my survival as a human being.”
About breaking color barriers in film
For a dark-skinned actor like Poitier, finding complex roles in the 1950s was difficult.
“(Blacks) were so new in Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters,” Poitier told Winfrey. “I had in mind what was expected of me, not just what other Blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.”
As he cemented his place in American cinema with films like “Lilies of the Field,” which earned him an Oscar, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Pointier was fully aware many people of color, including viewers and fellow artists, looked up to him.
“It’s been an enormous responsibility,” Poitier told Winfrey. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
About his activism
Poitier was also known for his activism and how he embraced the civil rights movement. In 1963, he attended the March on Washington and in 1964, the actor traveled to Mississippi to meet with activists in the days following the infamous slayings of three young civil rights workers.
“The nature of my life over the last 36 years has been such that the urgency that was evident today has been bubbling in me personally for most of these years. At least most of the years I came into adulthood. I became interested in the civil rights struggle out of a necessity to survive,” Poitier said during a roundtable with other March on Washington participants and filmed in 1963.
“I found it necessary for self-protection and to perpetuate my survival that I involve myself in any activity that would ease my burden momentarily,” he said about his decision to attend the march.