In explaining the roots of his commitment to civil rights, Tony Bennett often told a story from his army days, when he brought a black soldier as his guest to Thanksgiving dinner, prompting an angry rebuke and demotion.
It was 1945, three years before the end of apartheid in the US military, and Bennett, who had been drafted into World War II shortly after turning 18, happened to meet a high school friend and fellow soldier in occupied Germany. When he brought his friend, Frank Smith, to the holiday meal in the white soldiers’ mess hall, an officer angrily intercepted them, Bennett recalled in his 1998 autobiography.
“It was actually more acceptable to be friends with German troops than with a fellow black American soldier!” Bennett recalls in the book, “The good life.”
At that moment, Bennett recalls, the officer pulled out a razor and cut the body lines from his uniform, spat at them and threw them to the ground. He was then tasked with exhuming the soldiers’ bodies in mass graves so that they could be reburied with more dignity.
“For a while the whole issue over the human race strained me,” Bennett recalled in his autobiography.
It was a pivotal moment for the young singer, who had returned from the war and focused on developing his musical career. After twenty years and a whirlwind of fame, Bennett participated in the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, marching alongside other musicians like Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez.
While his death on Friday at age 96 rediscovered Bennett’s fond memories and charm as one of the chief financiers of the American Songbook, it also sparked Bennett’s memories as a steadfast advocate for civil rights.
Bennett’s career took off in the 1950s and 1960s, and when he joined jazz circles that included such greats as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, he came to witness the blatant racism that was so ingrained in the American entertainment industry. Bennett recalled that Cole, for example, could not sit in the dining room of the club where he was performing, and Ellington was not allowed to attend the party at the hotel where he and Bennett were at the highest level.
“I was never politically inclined,” Bennett said in his autobiography, “but these things transcended politics.” “Nat and Duke were geniuses, wonderful human beings who gave the world some of the most beautiful music he had ever heard, yet were treated like second-class citizens.”
In 1965, Belafonte asked him to attend the March to Montgomery, explaining that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped the artists would help drum up media interest, he recalled in the book. Bennett agreed, traveling with singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine. He said in his autobiography that the march reminded him of fighting his way into Germany at the end of the war, likening the hostility of the Germans to the soldiers of the White State.
The day before the protesters arrived at the Alabama State Capitol, Bennett was among the performers at a rally in a field where the protesters had camped for the night, singing from a makeshift platform built of coffin boxes and plywood.
When Bennett and Eckstein left the rally, Viola LiuzzoA volunteer from Michigan drives them to the airport. She was killed later that day by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
in 2007 documentary About Bennett, Belafonte noted that his friend brought “the spirit of World War II into our vision of an America of the future.”
The singer’s commitment to the cause continued. According to a 2011 biography of Bennett, “All the things that you are,” The singer also refused to perform in apartheid-era South Africa. Coretta Scott King said he remained committed to the King Center, the organization she created after her husband’s assassination. In Atlanta, Bennett earned a spot in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
In his later years, Bennett devoted much of his philanthropic contributions to arts education, establishing a public high school in Queens called the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts with Susan Benedetto, whom he married in 2007, and Nonprofit That funds arts programs in schools that need support.
In his later years, when Bennett discussed social justice mostly Quoting singer Ella Fitzgerald, who also attended the Selma-to-Montgomery rally: “Tony, we’re all here,” she told him she told him.
“All adversity, wars, prejudice—and everything that divides us—simply vanishes away.” he told Vanity Fair In 2016, “When you realize that we are all on one planet and that every problem must have a solution.”