Lady of Class: Lena Horne
Many people know Ms. Lena Horne for her beauty, others for her great talent and heavy work in the Civil Rights movement. Ms. Horne never forgot her heritage standing up for justice and making major strides for people of color. She used her celebrity to bring attention to the prejudices of her time participating along with Paul Robeson and other notable activists.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was an American singer, actress, civil rights activist and dancer.
Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of sixteen and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Due to the Red Scare and her left-leaning political views, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to get work in Hollywood.
Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne took part in the March on Washington in August 1963, and continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs and on television, while releasing well-received record albums. She announced her retirement in March 1980, but the next year starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned her numerous awards and accolades. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000.
Horne was long involved with the Civil Rights movement. In 1941, she sang at Cafe Society and worked with Paul Robeson. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform “for segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen”, according to her Kennedy Center biography. Because the U.S. Army refused to allow integrated audiences, she wound up putting on a show for a mixed audience of black U.S. soldiers and white German POWs. Seeing the black soldiers had been forced to sit in the back seats, she walked off the stage to the first row where the black troops were seated and performed with the Germans behind her. She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the weekend before Evers was assassinated. She also met President John F. Kennedy at the White House two days before he was assassinated. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC, and the National Council of Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Tom Lehrer mentions her in his song “National Brotherhood Week” in the line “Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek” referring (wryly) to her and to Sheriff Jim Clark, of Selma, Alabama, who was responsible for a violent attack on civil rights marchers in 1965.