Lena Horne was the first African-American elected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors.
BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief
Are there times when you have wondered how race has hindered or aided your professional progress? Ingrained racist attitudes have both overt and subtle ways of presenting hurdles that are often unspoken.
Meet Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, aka Lena Horne. Reportedly, she was a descendant of John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States. Horne was born on June 30, 1917, and died on May 9, 2010. She was an entertainer and civil rights activist. In addition, she was the first African-American elected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors.
By 1942, Horne signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM). Her scenes were shot in a way that allowed the studio to easily edit her out when shown to audiences in the South. As a result, MGM did not feature her in a leading role because of her race. Most of her film appearances were stand-alone sequences. They had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline.
At that time, theaters in the South refused to show movies that portrayed blacks in anything other than inferior roles to whites. The movie studios did not press the southern theaters to change their policy because they reportedly did not want to lose their white patrons. Horne had no interest in acting in such subservient roles.
Politically astute, Horne was not shy in expressing her disagreement regarding racial bias towards blacks. During World War II, she noticed that the military audience to which she agreed to perform consisted of a group of German prisoners of war (POWs) who sat in front of the African-American servicemen.
Think about that for a minute — the POWs were seated in front of the African-American servicemen to be entertained by Lena Horne. Horne had a solution, however. She walked off the stage and stood at the first row where the black servicemen were seated and performed. Yes, she boldly took a stand.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Horne was one of Hollywood’s top African-American performers. As her fame grew, so did the FBI’s interest in her and her advocacy for civil rights. By 1947, the FBI kept files on her as a communist sympathizer. These accusations concerned Horne. By 1953, she addressed them via letter stating that she was not a communist.
Have you ever been adversely labeled for taking a stance against an injustice done to black people or marginalized people? It takes courage.
Horne’s activism resulted in her being blacklisted and unable to find work in Hollywood. This did not stop her. She returned to her roots as a nightclub performer, performed on television, released albums and continued her civil rights work. She illustrates the importance of developing multiple skill sets.
In August of 1963, Horne took part in the March on Washington. She also volunteered for the NAACP and worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. Like so many other blacks throughout her life, she faced numerous stereotypes and acts of racial discrimination. In addition to overcoming them, she had to learn how to deal with the psychological impact of its weight.
It is crucial to continue to remain engaged in the fight for civil rights to make life better for yourself and for generations coming behind you. Professionally, there are racial, unspoken obstacles to overcome. It has become “polite” not to talk about them. For sure, things will not get better if everyone remains silent in the face of discriminatory atrocity.
Are you waiting for someone else to continue the civil rights fight, or are you the chosen one?
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.