As the country commemorates the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself thinking about the other civil rights activists that sometimes get lost in the shuffle. I’m not alone in this. The United States Postal Service has an ongoing series dedicated solely to black American history and success, usually recognizing those whose names aren’t as mainstream as King or Parks. I’ve chronicled the stories of Dorothy Height and Richard Allen on Resistance Letters previously, and King’s messages of truth to power ring in my ears just as the USPS releases their newest addition to the collection: the (more recognizable) Lena Horne.
To me, Lena Horne represents the idea of the universality of politics. It is about all of us, and we all individually have to do our share. You don’t have to be in politics to be a part of it (and it certainly affects you whether you like it or not). A prominent performer who broke barriers and paved the way for the women of color in the media today, her activism is mind-boggling and should be more widely discussed. Indeed, it is her outspokenness (and refusal to play cliché parts for black women) that got her blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare, and her sacrifices and courage aren’t as widely known as her singing voice. She was willing to lose it all in order to speak up for what she believed in, and if that isn’t heroic, I don’t know what it is. She was getting pressure from all sides: the government, the entertainment industry, and a very racist and politically unstable society. How she managed to carry on a successful career and risk her life for the cause of black justice is beyond me.
We can all be a little bit like Lena Horne. Any person, no matter where they’re from or what they do, has the ability to be an activist. Start small, start somewhere. She is a reminder that you don’t have to be a political scientist or a lawyer in order to make a difference in the political arena, and every voice matters and counts.
If Lena Horne was on the blacklist, then that’s where I want to be, too.
Her commitment to the advancement of civil rights—and to economic and social justice causes—was big-spirited and unyielding, as Dr. King noted on that night 47 years ago, when he introduced her to the crowd at Carnegie Hall as a campaigner who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him in the struggle for “the attainment, through nonviolent means, of equality and full constitutional rights for all Americans.”