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The lifelong friendship between Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, as people have been remembering the activist and singer Harry Belafonte, who died on Tuesday, they've talked about his music...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY O")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day o.

BLOCK: ...And the outsized role Belafonte played throughout the civil rights movement. That role led to a deep and enduring friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. When Belafonte guest hosted "The Tonight Show" in 1968, he insisted that King be a guest on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

BELAFONTE: What do you have in store for us this summer?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: That's a good question.

BLOCK: When writer Jeff Sharlet spent time with Belafonte for a profile, the artist told him about some of the more memorable moments in his relationship with King.

JEFF SHARLET: When King was in New York, he stayed in Belafonte's 21-room apartment - a hideout from even King's closest allies. Nobody knew it was there, Belafonte told me. Nobody knew his number. Nobody knew. He had his own key.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS JINGLING)

SHARLET: He had his own entrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR LATCH CLICKING)

SHARLET: King would slip in late, and Julie Belafonte would bring out the Harveys Bristol Cream they kept for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY BEING POURED)

SHARLET: King always marked the bottle with a line. It was a joke. Or maybe it was a border between the world outside and this secret retreat at Harry's. Some nights they'd talk tactics and strategy. Sometimes they'd just crack each other up. In the hall at Belafonte's apartment - smaller now - there was a photograph of the two of them at Harry's, the rarest of images of King, busting a gut with laughter, eyes squeezed shut - not the noble Christ figure we're used to now, but a fat, jolly Buddha.

Some nights, King wrote. He'd scratch out something on a yellow legal pad...

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SCRATCHING)

SHARLET: ...Put on his MLK suit and leave for a fundraiser. Then he'd return to the apartment, sip some sherry...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHERRY BEING POURED)

SHARLET: ...Become Martin again, write a few more words...

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SCRATCHING)

SHARLET: ...Crumple the page and toss it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRUMPLING)

SHARLET: Before it hit the floor, said Belafonte, my hand was there like Willie Mays. Don't throw that out. Hold on, man. That's your writing.

Belafonte would smooth the wrinkled pages and store them away - the sacred text of a man, he insisted, even now, must not be deified. King, to Harry, was a comrade. There were death threats and bomb scares and arson attempts. When you marched in front, next to King, you had to be ready to die. Belafonte's closest call came in 1964. He had tapped the stars - Sinatra, Brando, Baez...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) We shall overcome.

SHARLET: ...And his own funds to raise money for the Mississippi Freedom Summer's voter registration drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: This is a meeting of Freedom Summer volunteers in New York's...

SHARLET: Then, three activists disappeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Tonight, Andrew Goodman and two companions are the focus of a whole country's concern.

SHARLET: On August 4, the FBI found the bodies - James Chaney, a 21-year-old Black man from Mississippi; two white men from New York - 20-year-old Andrew Goodman and 24-year-old Michael Schwerner. They had been shot. Goodman had been buried alive. That night, one of the leaders of the voter drive called Belafonte.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SHARLET: Change of plans. Originally, volunteers were to work two-week shifts. Now, they were going to stay - every one of them. They needed more money. How much? - Belafonte asked. At least $50,000 within three days. There was no way a Black man in New York could wire $50,000 to a civil rights activist in Mississippi. It'd be like sending a death warrant. Somebody would have to hand-deliver cash.

Belafonte called his friend, Sidney Poitier. They might think twice about killing two Black stars, or they might not. As soon as they stepped off a little Cessna in Greenwood, Miss., the pilot wheeled around and took off. When they got into the car, its finish sanded down to dull its shine, a pair of headlights across the field popped on, then another, and another - more. Federal agents, Belafonte told Poitier. Agents, my ass, said the driver. That's the Klan.

The driver, a man named Willie Blue, made straight for the lights. At the last second, he veered off. Belafonte shouted, faster, man. Uh-uh, said Willie Blue. Sheriff's deputy would pull them over, and they'd wind up just like the three boys the feds pulled out of the river. The car jolted. A truck had rammed them. The car shuddered - the night, dark and wet and hot, pouring in through the windows, Belafonte and Poitier twisting around toward the glaring lights, as if their star power could stop them. It's OK, said Willie Blue. As long as they could stay in front, the men in the truck couldn't draw a bead.

Close to town, a convoy of activists came out to meet them. Hundreds, white and Black, waited in a dance hall. The applause, remembered Belafonte, was like nothing he'd ever known. He let the crowd fall quiet - just Mississippi night. Then he sang - day o.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Day.

SHARLET: Day o.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day, me say day o.

SHARLET: He'd changed the words - freedom, freedom. Freedom come, and it won't be long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) I want go home.

SHARLET: When the song was over, Belafonte held up a black doctor's bag and dumped $70,000 in small bills on the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Star a come and I carry me load. Star a come and I carry me load.

BLOCK: That's writer and Dartmouth professor Jeff Sharlet. His book is "The Undertow: Scenes From A Slow Civil War."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR O")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Come mister tally man, tally me banana. Star o come and... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Sharlet