Sidney Poitier Leaves Behind a Legacy That Will Live on Forever

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Poitier
Courtesy of Norene (Flickr CC0)

Sidney Poitier was not just a famous Hollywood actor with a dashing presence who swooned many women of different ages and races, he was also a civil rights activist and philanthropist who supported worthy causes related to fighting diseases and promoting higher education. Born two months premature on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami Florida, Poitier began his life as a powerful pioneer who defied all odds.

His parents crossed into the United States through Florida to sell the tomatoes they grew on Cat Island in the Bahamas, but his mother unexpectantly went into labor and gave birth to a tiny premature baby who was not expected to live. After barely surviving his first two months, baby Sidney returned to his family’s farm on their home island, with no electricity, running water, paved roads, or automobiles, where he worked as a farmer for the first ten years of his life.

When he was 11, Sidney’s parents moved to Nassau, but due to his parents’ failing economic status, he left school at the age of 12 to help support his family. Without education, Sidney had limited prospects and was urged by his father to go to the United States, where he was a natural-born citizen, in hopes of finding better opportunities.

Life in the U.S. was very difficult for Sidney upon arrival, as he was faced with white supremacy and segregation, and had a hard time adjusting to the deference that white Southerners expected. During his migration from the south to New York, Poitier was robbed and left with only a few dollars in his pocket. With no money and no connections, Sidney slept in bus stations and on rooftops until he was able to enlist in the United States Army until he “feigned insanity to win a medical discharge.”

After returning to New York, Poitier auditioned for Harlem’s American Negro Theater but was ridiculed for his accent and poor reading skills. This did not stop the determined man who had grown accustomed to eluding any opposition he faced. He began reading newspapers in between his shifts as a dishwasher to improve his reading skills and he learned how to modify his accent by listening to the radio and repeating every word.

Returning to the American Negro Theater, he offered to serve as an unpaid janitor in exchange for taking classes at the theater’s school. His teachers had little faith in him, but when the star of their student production, the young Harry Belafonte, was unable to appear, Poitier was allowed to substitute for him. His performance was seen by a Broadway director who offered him a small role in an all-black production of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata.

This is when Poitier’s acting career began to blossom and he went on to be featured in other Broadway plays and eventually on-screen movies. He made his feature film debut in “No Way Out” in 1950 where he played a young doctor who treated a “bigoted patient in a town inflamed with racial hatred.” During this time, Blacks were featured in films as domestic servants or entertainers, but Poitier’s dignified role as a doctor “was a revelation to American audiences, and created a sensation in the African American community.”

Poitier
Courtesy of Nick (Flickr CC0)

Even on the screen, Poitier was resistant to the cultural norms of his time and rejected any roles that portrayed Black actors as less than distinguished members of society. This attitude highlighted Poitier’s nobility, as he was still forced to work poorly paid jobs and often times did not have money. However, this did not generate a desire for him to take any film roles that “robbed black characters of their dignity by portraying them as powerless victims.”

In 1958, director Stanley Kramer cast Sidney Poitier in the film “The Lost Ones.” Poitier starred alongside Tony Curtis as escaped convicts who, while chained together, had to work together to achieve their freedom. “A graphic metaphor for American race relations, the film was a critical and box office success, and Poitier received an Oscar nomination for his performance.” By the end of the 1950s, Poitier became the first leading Black man to gain acceptance in American movies, and his notoriety undoubtedly paved the way for an improvement in opportunities for Black actors.

Poitier continued to be featured in films that addressed racial and cultural issues such as the controversial issue of interracial marriage. Just six months after the legalization of interracial marriage in 1967, Poitier starred as a Black doctor meeting his white fiancee’s parents for the first time in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.”  This movie was one of three of Poitier’s most highly celebrated films, as it was reminiscent of Loving vs. Virginia where a U.S. Supreme Court ruling “struck down the last of the anti-miscegenation laws in this country.”

In the 70s, Poitier returned home to the Bahamas where he took on the role of activism as a prominent supporter of the independence movement. The Bahamas became an independent nation in 1973, an event that earned Sidney the title of the British Commonwealth as Sir Sidney Poitier. This was one of many activism contributions executed by Poitier.

Poitier
Courtesy of Norene (Flickr CC0)

During the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Poitier was a pivotal public figure as he “stood alongside protestors for Rev. Dr… King’s 1963 March on Washington.” Using his fame and universal platform to display his responsibility in civil matters, Poitier was very vocal about his stance on racial inequalities and Dr. King’s non-violent efforts to eradicate change. “For some years now I’ve worked raising funds for Dr. King because I believe, still, very strongly in his non-violent philosophy”. Poitier noted: “I am, by definition, in opposition to violence, particularly violence for violence sake.”

Furthermore, Sidney Poitier was also an avid supporter of charities, with contributions made to AIDS Project Los Angeles, Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, and Fulfillment Fund. While the first two charities are self-explanatory, Fulfillment Fund has three main goals:

  • Help disadvantaged students graduate from high school.
  • Increase the number who go on to college.
  • Help them successfully complete college and transition into the working world.

The many plays, films, activist projects, and even the charities he supported were a reflection of Poitier’s deep love for the advancement and empowerment of the people in this world. Although he was only one person, Poitier lived a life that completely defied all odds, prompted change, opportunities, and advancement for Black people, and encouraged health and higher education. The moment he took his first breath on earth, this world was profoundly blessed by the existence of Sir Sidney Poitier, and for 95 years reaped its benefits. This legendary icon made history through the life he lived and his legacy will live on forever.

Written by Hyleia Kidd
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware

Sources:

Academy of Achievers: Sidney Poitier: Legend of American Cinema
People: Sidney Poitier Turns 90: Inside the Actor, Activist and Diplomat’s Incredible Life; by Mike Miller
Far Out Magazine: Watch Sidney Poitier discuss his view on civil rights; by Calum Russell
Look To The Stars: Sidney Poitier Charity Work, Events and Causes
Pew Research Center: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; by Russell Heimlich

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Embajada de Estados Unidos en Bolivia’s Flickr Page — Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Nick’s Flickr Page — Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Norene’s Flickr Page — Creative Commons License

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