From 2002: Tony Bennett honored by King Center for his lifelong fight against racism

This article was originally published Jan. 18, 2002

Tony Bennett couldn’t shake the feeling of deja vu.

He was slogging through the rain and mud with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of others on the civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in March 1965.

As they marched, armed Alabama state troopers, who had beaten participants earlier that month, warily eyed the group. Their hostile, threatening looks reminded the singer of a painful day he had endured nearly 20 years earlier, as a scared kid stationed overseas during World War II.

Near the end of the war, Bennett was a 19-year-old Army corporal helping to liberate concentration camps in Germany. On Thanksgiving Day 1945, he was overjoyed to run into Frank Smith, an old high school chum from New York. Smith invited Bennett to church and, in return, Bennett asked Smith to a specially prepared Thanksgiving dinner at the Army’s dining hall.

As the pair walked through the door, they were stopped by a superior officer, who “took a razor, cut the stripes off my uniform, threw them on the floor and spit on them,” says Bennett. “He told me, ‘You’re no longer a corporal, you’re a private. Get your stuff. You’re outta here!’ "

Bennett’s transgression? Bringing Smith, a young black man, to a dining area for whites only.

Immediately, Bennett was assigned to graves registration, where he dug up American war casualties buried in mass graves and re-buried them in individual plots.

“I just could not believe that such bigotry existed in the United States Army,” he says. “It was deeply humiliating for both of us. It was just incomprehensible to me that I was being condemned just for being buddies with Frank. To this day, we can barely speak to each other about that day. It’s just too emotional.”

It’s likely that Bennett, 75, will speak of the incident Sunday night at the Hyatt Regency downtown, where he’ll receive the King Center’s 20th annual Salute to Greatness award for his lifelong support of civil rights.

During the singer’s seven decades, he has encountered racism and bigotry in the Army, witnessed the shabby treatment of his black musical idols such as Duke Ellington, and pushed his record label to embrace talented African-American musicians.

The ever-modest performer understands the smattering of critics who say that a black person should receive the King Center award. King’s widow, however, feels that Bennett is exactly the right choice.

“Tony is not only one of America’s premier performing artists, but he was a deeply committed friend and supporter of my husband and the civil rights movement,” Coretta Scott King said in a statement. “He has continued to support the efforts of the King Center to fulfill Martin’s dream, along with so many other great causes.”

Bennett says he’s “over the moon” about the honor. But the principles the award represents only underscore strong personal beliefs he has carried throughout his life.

He says his grandfather, an Italian immigrant, was determined that his family live in the ethnically varied area of Astoria, N.Y. “He said that America was the great melting pot and that’s where he wanted to live.”

After his stint in the Army, Bennett worked as a singing waiter as he tried to jump-start a musical career in New York. He credits performer Pearl Bailey with giving him his first big break, when the pair were double-booked at a Greenwich Village nightclub. As he got established, Bennett met and worked with his musical idols: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

In the mid-1950s, Bennett was booked in Miami when the Americana Hotel opened there. He played the venue’s first show with Ellington and his band. Unlike Bennett, the bandleader and his musicians weren’t permitted to stay at the hotel.

“These guys were my heroes and musical geniuses, and here they were being treated like second-class citizens,” Bennett recalls. “It enraged me.”

The singer also dealt with racial issues with his employer, Columbia Records.

In 1958, Bennett and his pianist-arranger, Ralph Sharon, released the trailblazing jazz record “The Beat of My Heart.” The album was created using the top jazz drummers of the day: Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, Billy Exiner and Art Blakey. In recognition of the critically acclaimed work on the record, Bennett posed with the drummers, most of whom were black, for the album’s cover. Days after “The Beat of My Heart” hit record shops, Columbia yanked it.

Says Bennett: “They had meetings about the cover, and they were worried about how it would sell in the South, so they replaced it with a text-only cover.” (When “The Beat of My Heart” was reissued in 1997, Bennett, in his current role as 10-time Grammy Award winner and Columbia’s elder-statesman recording artist, made sure it made its CD debut with the original cover.)

“Tony is not only one of America's premier performing artists, but he was a deeply committed friend and supporter of my husband and the civil rights movement. He has continued to support the efforts of the King Center to fulfill Martin's dream, along with so many other great causes."

- Coretta Scott King, 2002

In early 1965, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began planning the march from Selma to Montgomery to demand black voting rights, a call went out to sympathetic celebrities. When old friend Harry Belafonte called Bennett, the singer didn’t have to contemplate a response.

“I jumped right on it,” says Bennett. “When we all got there, though, there was some apprehension. We were one step away from being in a war again. I remember thinking, ‘This is uptight --- watch it.’ I couldn’t believe the people down there were used to all of that.”

In the evenings, Bennett and other celebrities on the march, including Shelley Winters, Leonard Bernstein, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Eckstine, performed for the marchers. “One night we found this clearing in a field, but there was no stage,” Bennett recalls. “Someone knew a mortician, who loaned us 18 caskets, and we made a stage out of them.” He remembers performing “Just in Time” in the rain for the appreciative crowd.

After Bennett left Alabama, he was shocked to learn that Viola Liuzzo, the woman who had driven him to the airport, had been shot and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen.

King expressed his appreciation to Bennett in a typewritten letter dated April 5, 1965. “I speak for myself and for the courageous 300 marchers and all the other people spurred on to those final miles to the capital in Montgomery,’’ King wrote. ‘’Your talent and goodwill were not only heard by those thousands of ears, but were felt in those thousands of hearts, and I give my deepest thanks and appreciation to you.” Below the salutation, King added in his handwriting, “The SCLC could not make it without friends like you and neither could I.” The framed letter now hangs in Bennett’s Manhattan management office.

Recently, Belafonte and Bennett had a chance to reminisce about the 1965 march. “He told me, ‘Tony, I’ve been an activist my whole career, and I was always told, ‘’It’s going to hurt your career,’’ and yet here I am,’ " says Bennett.

“Harry just reaffirmed for me that we’re all political animals when injustice is happening. We’re all such a small speck in the face of the universe. Every single person on this planet is important and should be respected equally. As Billy Eckstine told me that day in Selma, ‘Hey, if this country doesn’t work, the world isn’t going to work.’ "