Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The death of Sidney Poitier marks the passing of an icon whose art touched millions of lives across generations and whose work helped break down the structures of exclusion in Hollywood. But Poitier’s legacy is pivotal for other reasons. Though rightfully celebrated in his life and at his death for having achieved many racial firsts — America’s first Black movie star, matinee idol and Oscar winner for Best Actor — Poitier contributed much to social transformations taking place far beyond the movie screen.
His actions sometimes contrasted with the dignified and successful Black characters he frequently portrayed as the 1960s progressed. By 1967, when he starred in three of his biggest films — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir With Love” — Black Power radicalism had transformed civil rights struggles, and a younger generation at times criticized Poitier as being too “safe.” He endured an aspect of the same criticism faced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the decade progressed.
But Poitier was a staunch race man — the moniker bestowed upon stalwart supporters of racial progress — even if his personal style differed from that of the era’s most vocal firebrands. Poitier was also a social justice activist, one who felt both empowered and stifled by the overwhelming responsibility of representing Black people all over the world through his performances on film.
Unlike his good friend Harry Belafonte — the two met as struggling young actors in New York City’s Black theater scene just after the Second World War — Poitier was not a radical. His was a largely pragmatic approach to the civil rights movement: He chose his movie roles with the care of the young Black doctor he portrayed in his first major film role in “No Way Out” in 1950 and in subsequent films. Most notable was the 1967 race relations drama “In the Heat of the Night,” in which his Philadelphia detective transplanted to Mississippi slaps a White racist in the face after being struck first.
But one episode in Poitier’s life stands out in its demonstration of his political integrity, personal sincerity and unapologetic love for Black people. Three years before Poitier delivered the slap heard around the world, he ventured, alongside Belafonte and with a suitcase filled with cash, into the heart of America’s racial nightmare.
By 1964, Belafonte had cultivated a deep friendship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and developed relationships with student-activists connected to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He asked Poitier to accompany him to Mississippi to deliver cash to the student movement during Freedom Summer. That was a two-month experiment in multiracial democracy that drew almost 1,000 White volunteers to help organize ad hoc Freedom Schools, arts programs, civic and literacy classes and mock voter registration sessions.
The money, which totaled $70,000, was needed to support the cash-strapped operations of Southern civil rights activists and came from Belafonte. They stuffed it into doctors’ bags to avoid suspicion, a ruse that proved only partially successful.
This was a dangerous task. Mississippi at the time represented a literal and metaphorical graveyard for ordinary Black Americans and civil rights activists. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager from Chicago on vacation in the rural town of Money, Mississippi, had been lynched in 1955 by two White men for allegedly whistling at one their wives. Till’s open casket funeral became a gruesomely iconic symbol of racial violence during the era. Medgar Evers, a 37-year-old NAACP field secretary, was shot down outside his house by a White supremacist in the early hours of June 12, 1963, mere hours after President John F. Kennedy delivered a bravura speech in support of civil rights.
Indeed, the Freedom Summer campaign that Poitier sought to aid was organized, in part, to end the kind of ritualized violence that made the state infamous. Soul singer Nina Simone immortalized the state’s legendary anti-Black racism in her 1963 song “Mississippi Goddam.”
Poitier initially hesitated, reluctant to face such grave dangers although eager to help the civil rights movement, especially the young Black students risking their lives on the front lines of the struggle. His friendship with Belafonte and his genuine concern for the work the students were engaged in convinced him to go down to Mississippi.
Poitier and Belafonte arrived at the Jackson, Mississippi, Airport. On the way to deliver the money, the car Poitier and Belafonte were in was menaced by local vigilantes whom the actors assumed to be part of the Klan. They were pursued during a high-speed chase, and men with guns fired upon their vehicle in the kind of action scene both might have filmed under less dangerous circumstances.
Their driver eventually lost this tail, and they safely delivered the money, but the incident was scary enough that Poitier vowed on the spot to never venture below the Mason-Dixon Line, a promise he would break within two years to film “In the Heat of the Night.”
The previous summer, Poitier and Belafonte had both attended the March On Washington, headlining a celebrity contingent that included movie stars such as Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston. Now, they found themselves on the front lines of the struggle, with Poitier abandoning his famous caution and personal discipline to contribute to the movement in a way that observers might have characterized as reckless if either of these icons had been seriously hurt or killed.
Of course, Poitier did make it out of Mississippi alive. The harrowing trip to Mississippi later was obscured by Poitier’s legendary public career as an actor, director and mentor. During the 1980s and 1990s, Poitier offered advice, encouragement, and wisdom to a new generation of Black stars, including Denzel Washington and Will Smith.
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In his acceptance speech for the Oscar for best actor in 2002, Washington pointedly thanked Poitier, who was sitting in the balcony having earlier accepted a second, honorary Academy Award. “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend,” said Washington in a statement following Poitier’s death earlier this month. “He was a gentle man and opened up doors for all of us that had been closed for many years.”
Poitier’s political risk-taking on behalf of freedom’s cause represents a generational legacy that continues today. Black actors, celebrities and entertainers who support the Black Lives Matter Movement, voting rights and racial justice — whether behind the scenes or in more vocal ways — owe a debt to Poitier and the work he did in front of the camera and when the Hollywood klieg lights were turned off.