Not often cited as a controversial Civil Rights activist Lena Horne is still to this day seen only as a singer, dancer, actress performer and not as an activist, in a similar way to Nina Simone. However that could not be further from the truth.
“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way”.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a banker/professional gambler and an actress. Both parents had a mixed heritage of African American, European American and Native American descent. Her parents separated when she was three, and because her mother travelled as part of various theatre troupes, Horne lived with her grandparents for a time. Later, she alternately accompanied her mother on the road and stayed with family and friends around the country.
Over the course of her long life, Lena Horne became a star of film, music, television, and stage, as well as a formidable force for Civil Rights. She won a Tony in 1981, and two years later, earned a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks.
When she died in 2010 at age 92, President Barack Obama noted that she was the first Black singer to tour with an all-White band and that she refused to perform for segregated audiences. He said:
“Michelle and I join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country”.
Lena Horne was an enormous star throughout the 30’s and 40’s but there was a limit to how far MGM and others would go with her even as a lighter skinned Black women. In the MGM movie Showboat (1951) she was considered but not used as she was seen as, ‘too risky’. Strangely the musical is about a fair skinned Black woman, who’s life is changed when she is discovered to be ‘Black’. MGM instead chose a close friend of Lena’s to take the role, Ava Gardner, and darkened her skin with make up.
Lena was stuffed into one ‘all-star’ film musical after another – Thousands Cheer (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), ‘Words and Music’ (1948) – to sing a song or two that, she later recalled, could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
A close friend of Civil Rights giant Paul Robeson. Robeson had an affinity for Horne because her grandmother, a staunch character with a college education, had helped him get a scholarship to Rutgers.
In 1941, Horne found herself seeking Robeson’s advice. As she later detailed in her letter at the Sands Hotel (see below), she told him she was exhausted by the pressures of show business, the racism she faced from the White establishment, and the disdain she heard from Black people who accused her of ‘trying to pass as White’, Robeson kept listening. Finally, he exhorted her to devote her life to making the country a better place, to eradicate her pain by helping people everywhere. He named specific groups such as the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.
Horne also performed at a fundraiser for 10 screenwriters who’d refused to testify; they’d been fired from their studios and found guilty of contempt of Congress:
“I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody”.
These activities inevitably led to a brief period in the early 1950s under McCarthyism when Horne’s career seemed to be over. Her name had appeared in Red Channels, a report that listed more than 100 entertainers who appeared to have Communist leanings. Some of the other African Americans on the list were: Lena’s friend and mentors Paul Robeson; the actor Canada Lee; the poet / novelist / playwright Langston Hughes; acclaimed author Richard Wright; the prominent jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor Hazel Scott; the classical music conductor Dean Dixon; the author / playwight / composer Shirley Graham Du Bois; prominent singer / guitarist / songwriter/ actor Josh White; stage actor Hilda Simms; actress Ruby Dee; playwright / film director Ossie Davis; and others were outlawed by the HUAC. Most of these people were civil rights activists, some were socialists or communists but most had no affiliation to a polical party. The abusive term, ‘pinko’, was bandied around to demonise people.
Because of the accusations and intimidations, some of these creative people went to live in Europe, others were denied their passports, some had breakdowns and suffered ill health, many lost work contracts. Friendships were rift apart and people were ostracised in their own communities.
For more than three years after that, Lena Horne struggled to get work. She continued to perform at nightclubs, but nobody in the TV or film industries would hire her.
She was at a low point in June 1953 when she performed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The city was not the shining epicentre of entertainment that it is today. It was not even the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra’s famed Rat Pack jet set. There were only a handful of hotels and motels, and the infamous Strip was non-existent. But Horne had few other options. She closed the show with Stormy Weather, her most famous song:
Stormy Weather – written by Etta James
Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time
Life is bad
Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I’m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time
When he went away
The blues walked in and met me
Oh, yeah if he stays away
Old rocking chair’s gonna get me
All I do is pray
The Lord will let me
Walk in the sun once more
Oh, I can’t go on, can’t go on, can’t go on
Everything I have is gone
Stormy weather, stormy weather
Since my man and I, me and my daddy ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time
Oh, oh, keeps raining all of the time
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah raining all of the time
At the end of the show she went back to her room. On Sands stationery stamped with the hotel motto ‘A Place in the Sun’, her story unfolded. She wrote a letter to Roy Brewer, the trade union leader who was prominently involved in the anti-communist movement in the 1940s and 1950s:
Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, Brewer testified that the Soviet Union was financing “the takeover of the motion picture industry” and that American communists were attempting to “control the unions.”Roy M. Brewer, 97; Powerful Figure During Blacklist Era by By DENNIS MCLELLAN
SEP. 23, 2006 in the Los Angeles Times
“Dear Mr. Brewer”, her letter began. Sadly, this marked the distancing between herself and Paul Robeson, who was also on the list.
For decades, Horne’s biographers have largely glossed over the question of how Horne found her way back into the entertainment business. Even Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, who wrote a 1986 book about the Horne family, didn’t get to see the letter until 2013.
All that time, it was sitting in a bankers box, packed away in a children’s playhouse on a dusty ranch in the San Fernando Valley. But those 12 neatly written pages reveal how a beautiful young Black woman became a pawn in the Cold War – and how she ultimately regained control of her career and her life.
Horne continued to advocate for human rights and took part in the March on Washington in August 1963 with Martin Luther King and said of him:
“Every colour I can think of and nationality, we were all touched by Dr. King because he made us like each other and respect each other”
Later she returned to her roots as a nightclub performer and continued to work on television, while releasing well-received record albums. Lena Horne remained an active supporter of Civil Rights throughout the rest of her life.
Chicago Tribune Obituary: Lena Horne dies at 92; singer and civil rights activist who broke barriers
Black History Bootleg Rosa Parks
Paul Robeson in Black History Bootleg
Etta James – Black Past
MGM movie Showboat (1951)