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Emilie Raymond has written a highly readable, well-documented account of celebrity activism for the civil rights movement. She focuses [End Page 281] on a group of celebrities known collectively as “Stars for Freedom.” Among them were those whom Raymond refers to as “the Leading Six”: Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. These celebrities were largely responsible for creating and sustaining an all-too-critical “financial infrastructure” for the movement (p. ix). They raised large amounts of money for organizations that were oftentimes cash-strapped. Civil rights leaders used the money to bail activists out of jail, pay administrative staff salaries, and to bankroll large-scale events such as demonstrations and benefit concerts. Raymond estimates that the stars raised or donated on their own “hundreds of thousands of dollars” (p. xi). This book corrects the misconception that most celebrities during the period turned away from movement activism out of fear of reprisal.
Sammy Davis Jr. was the most influential and generous of the stars. His contributions were enormous by any measure, with his fundraising and personal donations amounting to around $750,000. Also important for his contributions was Harry Belafonte, who used his New York City apartment as a safe, secure place to organize and promote movement activities throughout the North and South. Also, in letter-writing campaigns, Belafonte drew on his network of celebrity friends to support the movement by not only providing cash but also by participating in some of the movement’s iconic events, including the student sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and the Selma protests.
The star most closely involved in actual southern protests was comedian Dick Gregory. He literally put his body on the line and passionately debated strategies and tactics with other movement participants. Raymond’s book really shines in her treatment of Gregory. She includes rich anecdotes about his movement service and performance career, and her analysis of his strengths and liabilities is sharp and considered. Although his undisciplined spontaneity often annoyed and unnerved more cautious and conservative activists, Raymond leaves no doubt about his indispensability.
In addition to being a study of celebrity activism, Raymond’s book [End Page 282] is also about the movement’s influence on the entertainment world, for artists grappled with issues of race and representation with the same persistence and self-awareness that typified their involvement in the movement. Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis played key roles in ushering in a new era in film, television, and theater that was shaped by Black Power politics. Poitier, an actor, producer, and one of only a few black directors at the time, worked to change blacks’ on-screen image and expand employment opportunities in the industry. The admired and widely respected husband-and-wife team of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis attempted the same in film and on stage.
While Raymond devotes entire chapters to the work of Davis, Belafonte, and Gregory, she covers the contributions of Poitier, Dee, and Ossie Davis in chapters organized thematically. Her coverage of Dee and Ossie Davis is certainly adequate for the purpose of illustrating the reach of movement ideals and aims, but her account of their efforts is hardly as detailed or coherently told as that of the other four. This aspect of the book has more to do with issues of method and interpretation. Why does Raymond focus on these six celebrity-activists as opposed to (or in addition to) others who were just as involved, such as the pugnacious actor and singer Lena Horne or the singular example of international superstar Josephine Baker? In the preface, Raymond offers that her “leading six” consisted of “the movement’s most outspoken, effective, and consistent celebrity activists, seemingly unafraid of the potential consequences to their careers” (p. ix). To be sure, there were others who fit within this category as well. Still this is not a problem that takes away from the book’s essential contribution...