When beloved icon Sidney Poitier passed away just weeks short of what would have been his 95th birthday on February 20, the world mourned a trailblazer who was not just a groundbreaking artist but an activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.” His steadfast public advocacy during the Civil Rights Movement, when he raised and personally delivered bail money for civil rights workers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, attended the March on Washington, and came to Resurrection City to stand with the Poor People’s Campaign, was just one chapter in a lifetime of fighting for equality on and offstage. I am especially grateful for his long legacy as a champion for children.
He was always determined to help young people overcome the odds stacked against them, and some fans who only saw his regal elegance and confident bearing as an adult may not even have realized how many odds he had overcome early in his own life, starting from birth as a poor, premature baby. He was the youngest of seven children and was born two months early in Miami, Florida when his parents, tomato farmers from the Bahamas, were in the United States for what had been intended as a short trip to sell crops. At less than three pounds he was not expected to survive, and his father even bought a tiny casket. But his mother, refusing to give up hope, consulted a soothsayer, who told her that her baby would live and would walk with kings and carry her name around the world.
He spent his childhood on a rural part of Cat Island in the Bahamas without indoor plumbing, electricity, or formal education. He didn’t attend school regularly until his family moved to Nassau when he was ten, and two years later had to drop out to start working to help earn money for his family, still barely able to read. When he was 15, he and several friends were jailed overnight for stealing ears of corn. His parents responded by sending him to live with an older brother in Miami in hopes of keeping him out of more trouble. As he later remembered, his father pressed three dollars into his hand and said goodbye at the boat dock. After being confronted and stifled by the unfamiliar Jim Crow racism of the American South, at 16 he left and moved alone to New York City, where he slept in train stations and bathroom stalls and was jailed again, this time for vagrancy. Poor, homeless, separated from family, poorly educated and pushed out of school early: how many other young people in similar circumstances with so many strikes against them, especially other children of color, never escape? But Sidney Poitier’s life ultimately fulfilled the soothsayer’s prophecy to his mother, and he never forgot what he had overcome or the individuals who helped along the way.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) was honored to be one of the organizations his family chose to honor his legacy and deeply grateful that he was a faithful friend and supporter of CDF’s work on behalf of children throughout his life. He participated in a number of CDF events, including CDF’s 35th anniversary in 2008. In a video message he said: “I’m very happy to be here with you tonight, but sad in a way too. Sad, because I ask myself, why, after all these years and all our efforts, do we still need a Children’s Defense Fund? It’s been 35 years since Marian first sounded the call. Nearly 45 years since Lyndon Johnson astonishingly told Congress ‘we shall overcome’ when he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And yet, our children remain at risk. As a nation, we have failed them in our schools. We have failed them in their right to even adequate health coverage. Too often, we have failed them by putting so many children born poor, Black, Latino, in a pipeline to prison. That is why we needed and why we still need the Children’s Defense Fund. Unless and until America hears our children calling, it’s up to all of us to do what it takes—with our checkbooks, with our mentoring, with our pressure at the voting booths—to save America’s future.”
He continued: “The Children’s Defense Fund has been one of the great causes of my life. I am so proud to have been a part of it . . . If I can quote another line from the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, ‘we’ll walk hand in hand, we will walk hand in hand someday.’ You and I, Marian, and those after us willing to pick up the baton, must press on for our children’s future. Don’t make me come back here in 35 years to tell you all that our kids still need the Children’s Defense Fund as much as they do today. We can do better.” He closed by saying: “I believe in you.”
We can do better. I am so grateful for Sidney Poitier’s extraordinary example of overcoming the odds to achieve greatness—and his unwavering belief that we can and will change the odds for every child.