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Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and a Freedom Summer High-Speed Chase

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"[The] best Sidney Poitier story is the time he and Harry Belafonte flew down to the Delta to bring $70K to keep Freedom Summer going. They got in a high speed chase with police who tried to stop them from delivering the money and they made it there anyway."

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On January 7 2022, just after the death of actor Sidney Poitier, a viral tweet described a purported incident in which Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte engaged in a “high-speed chase” to deliver $70,000 during the summer of 1964:

In the tweet, writer David Dennis Jr. said:

the best Sidney Poitier story is the time he and Harry Belafonte flew down to the Delta to bring $70K to keep Freedom Summer going. They got in a high speed chase with police who tried to stop them from delivering the money and they made it there anyway.

For context, “Freedom Summer” was the summer of 1964. History.com described it as follows:

Freedom Summer, or the Mississippi Summer Project, was a 1964 voter registration drive aimed at increasing the number of registered Black voters in Mississippi. Over 700 mostly white volunteers joined African Americans in Mississippi to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls. The movement was organized by civil rights organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and run by the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Freedom Summer volunteers were met with violent resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and members of state and local law enforcement. News coverage of beatings, false arrests and even murder drew international attention to the civil rights movement. The increased awareness it brought to voter discrimination helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Dennis said that in 1964, Belafonte and Poitier “flew down to the Delta” with $70,000 of funding to “keep Freedom Summer going.” He added that the pair “got in a high speed chase with police,” but “made it there anyway.”

On the website of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an entry (“Harry Belafonte”) described the event. However, the entry described interference from the Ku Klux Klan, not the police (although the two groups are far from mutually exclusive):

Drawing on his access as Black celebrity, Belafonte was able to support the Southern Movement. This became especially important shortly after the start of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. When the murdered bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were finally found on August 4, 1964, Belafonte received a telephone call from SNCC’s James Forman. He told Belafonte that they were going to run out of money in Mississippi within the next 72 hours. COFO, said Forman, did not have the resources to keep them in the state.

Belafonte was able to raise $70,000 in two days. He knew he would have to supply the money in person, and so he and actor Sidney Poitier personally brought the money – in cash – to summer project headquarters in Greenwood, Mississippi. SNCC field secretary Willie Blue had picked them up. It was late at night, and they were ambushed by Ku Klux Klansmen, who used a pickup truck to try to ram them off the road. Eventually several SNCC vehicles came and escorted them safely into Greenwood. While in the Delta, Belafonte stayed with a local family and participated in SNCC and COFO’s day-to-day work on the ground.

That story was briefly mentioned in a 2017 New York Times piece, “Harry and Sidney: Soul Brothers”:

Even at the height of their success both men made an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Movement and changed the very idea of black masculinity.

In 1964, Belafonte convinced a hesitant Poitier to help him deliver $70,000 stuffed into a doctor’s bag to Freedom Summer volunteers in the South. They were met by Klansmen who chased them and fired guns at them. As one website put it, referring to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “The trip ‘solidified Poitier’s commitment to SNCC,’ and he would become the symbol of the group’s goals for African-Americans.”

And a 2015 The Week article, “Ghosts of the Freedom Summer,” reiterated that Poitier and Belafonte’s chase involved Klan members:

[Bob] Moses, a Harvard-educated New Yorker, had come to Mississippi in 1961 to work on voter registration for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as the SNCC. Moses set up SNCC’s headquarters in Greenwood — and [The Rev. Willie] Blue’s first task was to pick up Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, who were coming to Greenwood to offer their support.

Blue arrived at the airport only to encounter a cadre of armed Ku Klux Klan members. The two-car delegation picked up their Hollywood guests, and Blue soon found himself in a high-speed chase with the Klan. Laughing ruefully today, Blue said he didn’t find out until later that Poitier and Belafonte had been carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash to help the voting rights effort.

After Poitier’s death, Dallas Morning News published a piece about the Freedom Summer efforts of the actor and Belafonte, reporting, “Sidney Poitier rarely spoke of that dark night in Mississippi.” That story drew in part from Belafonte’s autobiography, and described “patrol[s]” evaded by the three men in an effort to safely transport the $70,000:

The financial costs of supporting the hundreds of Council of Federated Organizations volunteers spread across the state soon strained the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the breaking point. By August, James Forman, de facto leader of the SNCC, called Belafonte for help. “We’ve got a crisis down here,” they told him.” “We need help.” They needed $50,000, and they needed it right away.

Belafonte personally donated much of the money, organized a quick fundraiser and raised $70,000. The problem then became how to transport that much money into the heart of what was essentially occupied territory. The SNCC and other organizations had already had problems with the white-supremist controlled banks, and wiring that much money to any African American was tantamount to suicide.

Belafonte concocted a desperate plan and contacted Poitier — whom he called “his brother” — and Poitier agreed to accompany him to Mississippi. The two men flew from Newark to Jackson, where they were met by Forman and SNCC volunteer Willie Blue, to deliver the money to Greenwood.

As Belafonte recalls in his autobiography, My Song: A Memoir of Arts, Race and Defiance, “I’d never seen a night as black as this.” Somehow, the Klan and other racist groups found out.

With Poitier and Belafonte in the backseat, Blue left the small airport driving the nondescript car at 40 miles per hour hoping to thwart Highway Patrol cars already hidden along the route — each patrol intent to catch them speeding and take the men to the station where they risked a beating or worse.

Almost immediately, their automobile was attacked by a pickup with two-by-fours mounted on the grill. The truck slammed into them repeatedly, trying to force the small car off the road. The cat-and-mouse game continued for several miles. At the final moment, a hastily convened procession of autos with SNCC volunteers arrived to form an impromptu protective convoy.

It was a nightmarish scene, with Belafonte and Poitier never knowing if the next truck that pulled even with them would point a shotgun out of the passenger-side window. Numerous shots were fired at the cars in the small procession, but none somehow struck Poitier and Belafonte’s vehicle.

The caravan survived the gauntlet and when Poitier and Belafonte, exhausted and bruised, walked into the small Elks Hall in Greenwood, they were met by screams of joy and impromptu freedom songs by the volunteers.

After Sidney Poitier’s death on January 6 2022, a viral tweet described a tense “high-speed chase” involving the two men in 1964’s Freedom Summer. Its details were largely accurate, but many earlier accounts described the pursuers as members of the “Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.” As indicated in numerous excerpts above, Belafonte discussed the incident at length in his autobiography.