Lena Horne, The Activist
By Rev. Al Sharpton
When we reflect on the civil rights struggle within this nation, we often focus–and rightfully so–on the works of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In school, students learn of the boycotts and sit-ins that transformed the landscape of everyday American life. And those of us that lived it, remember signs that read ‘Whites only’, the segregated schools and the countless marches that eventually united and integrated society. But in order to alter peoples’ mindsets when it came to race relations, there were also those who utilized their own influence to make a bold, lasting statement. One such talent was the late Lena Horne, whose sheer existence changed the way we view African American women forever.
Born in my borough of Brooklyn in 1917, Ms. Horne was introduced to the notions of justice and activism as a young child when her grandmother signed her up for an NAACP membership. The daughter of an actress, she was also closely connected to the arts from the onset and began singing when she was just a teenager. But performing in front of all-White crowds for minimal pay at infamous venues like Harlem’s ‘Cotton Club’, Ms. Horne understood the immense power entertainment had in breaking down racial and social divides. And despite the great paradox in her eventual thriving career where she could sign autographs for fans, but not stay at the hotels she performed at, Ms. Horne excelled onward.
In 1940, young Ms. Horne became the first African American performer to tour with an all-White band. Soon enough, nobody could deny her unique sultry, powerful voice that would leave chills with both Black and White listeners. And because of her sophisticated aura and immense beauty, Hollywood came knocking a few years later. Shining in films like ‘Stormy Weather’, as well as on Broadway, Ms. Horne set a new standard for African American women who were previously only depicted in stereotypical non-flattering roles. Revered for her beauty by all races, she became what many would call the first Black female sex symbol. But aside from turning heads, Ms. Horne in effect opened the door for future Black actresses to come in and demand respectable gigs. As the first Black female to sign a long-term contract with a major studio, she created a path that would one day allow the heroines of today–like Halle Barry–to exist and thrive in their own careers.
Many are familiar with the accolades of Ms. Horne’s artistic genius, which of course included several Grammys, a Tony, graces on the cover of major movie magazines and a thriving career that literally spanned decades and well into her later years. But what most people may not remember is her utter defiance to accept inequality both on screen, off screen, on stage, or offstage. At a time when many of her movie roles were limited to singing scenes so that they could easily be cut out if audiences down South did not want an African American in the film, she would integrate studios and stage sets on her own, or simply quit Hollywood altogether. During World War II, she refused to sing for segregated audiences and one time moved to the back of the room where Black soldiers were forced to sit behind German prisoners of war. Never one to back down in the face of opposition, this passionate woman even flung a table lamp and an ashtray at a man who called her a racial epithet.
Ms. Horne’s struggle for justice and equality began very early both by the nature of her work and by the values instilled in her from her grandparents. Setting the gold standard for African American beauty at a time when Blacks were still fighting to be considered more than 3/5ths of a man, she broke racial and social blockades in undeniable ways. And later, during the civil rights struggle of the ’60s, she marched in Washington, raised money for the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women, and was even part of a group that met with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
So today, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Ms. Horne, I hope that we all remember her not only for her musical and acting abilities, but also for her unwavering dedication to advance the cause of justice. Lena Horne, we’re thankful for your existence, for that by itself forever changed how we are perceived–and more importantly, the way we perceive ourselves.