Former President Barack Obama paid tribute to Sidney Poitier today, calling him a singular talent” who “epitomized dignity and grace.”
Poitier, whose death was revealed Friday, was 94. In 2009, Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, for his artistic and humanitarian achievements. “Ultimately, the man would mirror the character, and both would advance the nation’s dialogue on race and respect,” the White House noted at the time.
“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Obama wrote on Twitter on Friday. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”
Hillary Clinton also honored Poitier, writing, “We were all so lucky to share a culture with Sidney Poitier, and benefit from his hand in shaping it.”
As a civil rights activist, Poitier was among the celebrity figures who attended the March on Washington in 1963. The next year, just months after becoming the first Black winner of the Best Actor Oscar, Poitier and his longtime friend Harry Belafonte trekked to Greenwood, MS, to deliver $70,000 in cash to help fund the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee voter registration drive, known as Freedom Summer. At the time, the bodies of three volunteers had just been found in a shallow grave near Philadelphia, MS.
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Belafonte and Poitier each shared the bond of West Indian heritage and “the same burning desire to break out of grinding poverty,” Belafonte wrote in his memoir, My Song. Then they both achieved “our dreams as entertainers.”
“We were, to put it simply, the two top black male entertainers in the world,” Belafonte wrote. “Like brothers, we were also fiercely competitive, and had our differences, both political and personal. For starters, Sidney was a lot more cautious than I was.” After asking about security precautions, Poitier agreed to take the trip.
Once they landed in a small plane in Greenwood, they encountered almost immediately the Ku Klux Klan, as three or four pickup trucks chased them from the airport. One truck rammed the back of their car until they finally reached a convoy of cars coming toward them, as it turned out a group of volunteers offering protection. “As the convoy approached, the pickup trucks slowed, and their headlights retreated,” Belafonte wrote. “That was when we heard the shots, a dozen or more. Whether the Klansmen were firing at us or shooting up in the air, we couldn’t tell. No one was hit, and no bullets pierced our car.”
When they reached an Elks hall where hundreds of volunteers were gathered, “screams of joy went up from the crowd. Sidney and I had heard a lot of applause in our day, but never anything like those cheers. After weeks of lonely, scary fieldwork, these volunteers were wrung out and in despair. To have two of the biggest black stars in the world walk in to show solidarity with them — that meant a lot to them, and to us.”
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