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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Actors Burt Lancaster, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 — Archive Photos/Getty Images

Harry Belafonte

As a singer and an actor, Belafonte possessed the rarest of commodities for a black man in the 1950s: a public platform. For years, he deployed that asset with commitment and creativity to support the civil rights movement.

Belafonte used every tool at his disposal — his fame (he headlined rallies and fundraisers and once led a delegation of students to the Eisenhower White House to deliver a petition supporting school integration), his money (he bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham, Ala., jail) and his political savvy (he served as an emissary to and bridge between not only King and Robert F. Kennedy but also King and more-impatient civil rights groups to his left). More than a public performer, Belafonte became a confidant of, and a strategist for, the civil rights leadership.

Belafonte has also demonstrated remarkable political stamina. Almost three decades after he met King, he helped organize the star-studded "We Are the World" recording in 1985 for Africa and served as a UNICEF special ambassador.

Belafonte's compass has wobbled in recent years; his comments on foreign policy veered toward the fringe, and during the George W. Bush presidency he offensively compared Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to house slaves. But no entertainer did more to help lift the stain of state-sponsored segregation from the United States.

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