His actions sometimes contrasted with the dignified and successful Black characters he frequently portrayed as the 1960s progressed. By 1967, when he starred in three of his biggest films — “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir With Love” — Black Power radicalism had transformed civil rights struggles, and a younger generation at times criticized Poitier as being too “safe.” He endured an aspect of the same criticism faced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the decade progressed.
But Poitier was a staunch race man — the moniker bestowed upon stalwart supporters of racial progress — even if his personal style differed from that of the era’s most vocal firebrands. Poitier was also a social justice activist, one who felt both empowered and stifled by the overwhelming responsibility of representing Black people all over the world through his performances on film.
Unlike his good friend Harry Belafonte — the two met as struggling young actors in New York City’s Black theater scene just after the Second World War — Poitier was not a radical. His was a largely pragmatic approach to the civil rights movement: He chose his movie roles with the care of the young Black doctor he portrayed in his first major film role in “No Way Out” in 1950 and in subsequent films. Most notable was the 1967 race relations drama “In the Heat of the Night,” in which his Philadelphia detective transplanted to Mississippi slaps a White racist in the face after being struck first.
But one episode in Poitier’s life stands out in its demonstration of his political integrity, personal sincerity and unapologetic love for Black people. Three years before Poitier delivered the slap heard around the world, he ventured, alongside Belafonte and with a suitcase filled with cash, into the heart of America’s racial nightmare.
The money, which totaled $70,000, was needed to support the cash-strapped operations of Southern civil rights activists and came from Belafonte. They stuffed it into doctors’ bags to avoid suspicion, a ruse that proved only partially successful.
This was a dangerous task. Mississippi at the time represented a literal and metaphorical graveyard for ordinary Black Americans and civil rights activists. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black teenager from Chicago on vacation in the rural town of Money, Mississippi, had been lynched in 1955 by two White men for allegedly whistling at one their wives. Till’s open casket funeral became a gruesomely iconic symbol of racial violence during the era. Medgar Evers, a 37-year-old NAACP field secretary, was shot down outside his house by a White supremacist in the early hours of June 12, 1963, mere hours after President John F. Kennedy delivered a bravura speech in support of civil rights.
Of course, Poitier did make it out of Mississippi alive. The harrowing trip to Mississippi later was obscured by Poitier’s legendary public career as an actor, director and mentor. During the 1980s and 1990s, Poitier offered advice, encouragement, and wisdom to a new generation of Black stars, including Denzel Washington and Will Smith.
Poitier’s political risk-taking on behalf of freedom’s cause represents a generational legacy that continues today. Black actors, celebrities and entertainers who support the Black Lives Matter Movement, voting rights and racial justice — whether behind the scenes or in more vocal ways — owe a debt to Poitier and the work he did in front of the camera and when the Hollywood klieg lights were turned off.