Harry Belafonte Touched All Our Lives

Harry Belafonte 1960 Photo: Herschel Levit, National Portrait Gallery

Harry Belafonte touched all our lives, whether as the King of Calypso or a courageous Civil rights activist.

But it was a touch of another kind that once caused an uproar.

It was April 2, 1968, when along with other Americans, I watched for the first time a white woman touch a black man’s arm on prime-time TV.

This was not just news, but groundbreaking news!

It may seem hard to comprehend today, but 55 years ago when British pop sensation  Petula Clark inadvertently touched Harry Belafonte’s arm while performing a duet together on her NBC Special, Petula her gesture made television history.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and the continuing conflicts over civil rights and cultural values, America was in the midst of an identity crisis that echoes today.  As these battles erupted, Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte found themselves embattled in the center of a media controversy that involved race, censorship, and good old American bigotry.

All because she dared to place her white hands on the Black arm of her fellow singer.


“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Sidney Poitier broke barriers with interracial marriage. 1967

It is important to put the incident in context with the times.

The previous year, new ground had finally broken when African-American actor Sidney Poitier played a doctor who was engaged to a white woman in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

In 1967, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 U.S. states. Television had yet to catch up with Hollywood. Touching between a black man and a white woman was still taboo on TV.


Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte in “Petula”

Petula was Clark’s first one-hour U.S. TV Special and the sponsor was Plymouth a division of Chrysler. The uproar over the gesture began with the car company’s head of advertising, a 49 years old decorated former U.S. Air Force pilot named Doyle Lott.

Lott was not thrilled with Harry Belafonte appearing on the show initially.

Not only did Belafonte’s liberal anti-Vietnam stance not sit well with this recipient of the Silver Star Medal for Valor in Combat, Lott didn’t want the entertainer because, he announced off the record, Belafonte was Black.

Trailblazer on The Tonight Show

Harry Belafonte hosted the Tonight Show for an amazing week in Febuary 1968

By 1968 Belafonte had been using his celebrity to become a prominent Civil Rights activist.

That February for the first time in history a black man was invited to be a guest host of a late-night program- in fact, The late-night program The Tonight Show.

That man was Harry Belafonte.

For one remarkable week, Johnny Carson handed his reign of the show to Belafonte to allow the issues bubbling in the national conscience- the civil rights movement and the antiwar protests of the escalating war in Vietnam to have their due.

This was just after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the same week that segregationist Governor   Wallace and Richard Nixon announced their intention to run for president. Nixon had just begun his divisive campaign playing on the grievances of white working class as did George Wallace, paving the way for Trump.

Viewers had no TV precedent for what they were about to witness on the Tonight Show. Belafonte’s guest list for the week was a who’s who of the most prominent powerful and divisive Black performers and activists in America. 15 of the 25 guests were Black.

The conversations were unlike anything most Americans had ever heard.

Bobby Kennedy discussed the justice of poverty in America. Martin Luther King had the chance to talk about the civil rights movement’s goals. For many Americans, this was the first opportunity to hear Dr King interviewed in depth and hear his views on social justice.

Belafonte used his platform to not only upend segregated media and project images of Black Americans discussing racial and economic inequality but also simply living their lives. He showed home movies of his family because he wanted America to see Black people living their ordinary lives.

The ratings were phenomenal and for five historic nights Belafonte introduced a fractured, changing, country to itself.

March 1968 Taping


Exactly a month later in early March, the taping of Petula began.

The duet with Belafonte and Clark performing her own song  On the Path of Glory a sober lament on the horrors of war, proved problematic. The subject matter initially made NBC nervous but once convinced it wasn’t about Vietnam but war in general they gave it the green light.

But there would be other complications

As the moving song continued, her eyes teared up, Belafonte’s eyes teared up and Petula became so emotional she reached over and held Harry’s forearm in a gesture of genuine emotion.

Lott who was present at the taping went ballistic watching this. Certain this could never be allowed on television, he worried that they would all lose their jobs.

He objected to the “interracial touching” concerned that it would offend the sensibilities of viewers in the South.  Because they had filmed  a number of different takes, he wanted to substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing apart from each other. Petula and her husband Claude Wolff  who was co-producer of the special, objected.

To make sure that they could not be overruled, Wolff told the producer of the special, Steve Binder, to destroy all other takes of the song.

The touch stayed in.  A race barrier was broken.

A month before it was scheduled to be broadcast, Belafonte took the story to the media and generated a media storm publicly disgracing Lott for his racism. The whole situation made major public waves and attracted a lot of publicity for the show.

A Nation Was  Touched

“Petula,” 1968: The sponsors, Chrysler Motor Corp., try unsuccessfully to quash a shocking sequence in this Petula Clark special. In the sequence, Petula’s white hand rests momentarily on the black arm of Guest Star Harry Belafonte. Vintage ad for Petula

On Tuesday night at 8pm, I tuned in to Petula not only to hear the pop star sing Downtown but to see what the hoopla was all about.

It was the hot topic in the lunchroom that day, and many kids were willing to forgo their usual Mod Squad to check out the controversy. I made sure to get all my homework done early so I would not miss a moment.

Like most viewers who saw Clark’s hand caress Belafonte’s arm that evening in April, I wondered what the racial fuss had been about. The touch that Lott thought would be the doom of NBC  ended up touching much of the viewers.

The next day Variety ended its review of the special “…the touching bit which caused such a stir… could only disturb the spiritually sick.”


Harry Belafonte weeps at MLK Funeral seated next to Coretta Scott King 1968

Soon we would learn how spiritually sick our nation could be.

This event would pale in comparison to what would lay ahead.

Within 48 hours, America’s racial tensions were violently cast into far sharper relief by a single gunshot in Memphis- Dr. King’s assassination.

One week to the day that Belafonte appeared on prime-time TV screens with Clark clinging to his arm, he stood at an Atlanta graveside with another female hand clinging to his elbow – that of Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta.

His deep commitment to social justice changed the landscape of America.




  1. Sally, thanks for doing this. Belafonte was a true hero. Keith


  2. I doubt there has been a better Harry Belafonte tribute written. Bravo. I hope this is widely read and taken to heart. Thank you.


  3. tripichick

    dude had tons more privilege than i. not my kinda music.


    • I don’t think of him as having privilege. He was an incredible humanitarian.


      • tripichick

        he had the privilege of being paid well for his gift. judging from pics, he was better nourished than I. He died of CHF which he means he failed to get enough exercise or moderate his diet enough to let so he essentially downed in his own fluids.


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