In explaining the roots of his commitment to civil rights, Tony Bennett often told a story from his Army days, when he brought a Black soldier as his guest to Thanksgiving dinner, prompting a furious reprimand and a demotion.
It was 1945, three years before the end of segregation in the U.S. military, and Bennett, who had been drafted into World War II shortly after he had turned 18, happened to run into a high school friend and fellow serviceman in occupied Germany. As he brought the friend, Frank Smith, to the holiday meal in the white servicemen’s mess hall, an officer intercepted them in a rage, Bennett recalled in his 1998 autobiography.
“It was actually more acceptable to fraternize with the German troops than it was to be friendly with a fellow Black American soldier!” Bennett recalled in the book, “The Good Life.”
Bennett recalled that in that moment, the officer took out a razor blade and cut the corporal stripes from his uniform, spitting on them and throwing them to the floor. He was then assigned to dig up the bodies of soldiers in mass graves so that they could be reburied with more dignity.
“For a while the whole affair soured me on the human race,” Bennett remembered in the autobiography.
It was a pivotal moment for the young singer, who returned from the war focused on developing his music career. Twenty years and a whirlwind of fame later, Bennett participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965, performing for marchers alongside other musicians such as Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Joan Baez.
As his death on Friday at 96 unearthed memories of Bennett’s suave affability and charm as one of the foremost purveyors of the American songbook, it also prompted recollections of Bennett as a steadfast advocate for civil rights.
Bennett’s career took off in the 1950s and ’60s, and as he joined jazz circles that included greats such as Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, he came to witness the blatant racism that had been ingrained in the American entertainment industry. Cole, for example, could not sit down in the dining room of the club where he had been performing, Bennett recalled, and Ellington wasn’t allowed to attend the party at the hotel where he and Bennett were top billing.
“I’d never been politically inclined, but these things went beyond politics,” Bennett said in his autobiography. “Nat and Duke were geniuses, brilliant human beings who gave the world some of the most beautiful music it’s ever heard, and yet they were treated like second-class citizens.”
In 1965, Belafonte asked him to attend the march to Montgomery, explaining that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that entertainers could help rally media attention, he recalled in the book. Bennett agreed, traveling with the singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine. He said in his autobiography that the march reminded him of fighting his way into Germany at the end of the war, comparing the hostility of the Germans to that of the white state troopers.
The day before the marchers reached the Alabama State Capitol, Bennett was among the performers at a rally in a field where the marchers were camping for the night, singing from a makeshift stage built from coffin crates and plywood.
When Bennett and Eckstine left the march, Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer from Michigan, drove them to the airport. She was murdered later that day by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In a 2007 documentary about Bennett, Belafonte recalled that his friend brought the “spirit of the Second World War into our vision of the America of the future.”
The singer’s commitment to the cause persisted. According to the 2011 biography of Bennett, “All the Things You Are,” the singer also refused to perform in apartheid-era South Africa. Coretta Scott King has said that he remained committed to the King Center, the organization she created after her husband’s assassination. In Atlanta, Bennett has a spot on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
In his later years, Bennett dedicated much of his charitable contributions to arts education, establishing a public high school in Queens called Frank Sinatra School of the Arts with Susan Benedetto, whom he married in 2007, and a nonprofit that funds arts programming at schools in need of support.
In his final years, when discussing social justice, Bennett would often quote the singer Ella Fitzgerald, who attended the Selma-to-Montgomery march as well: “Tony, we are all here,” he said she told him.
“All the tribulations, the wars, the prejudice — and everything that divides us — simply melt away,” he told Vanity Fair in 2016, “when you realize that we’re all together on one planet and that every problem should have a solution.”