Dynamic Duo : NAACP Honors Achievements of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte


Perhaps the best way to throw a successful black-tie award gala is to have entertainment so dazzling that midway through the evening, it’s forgotten that nights like this are by tradition terminally boring.

That’s what the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund did Wednesday night at the Regent Beverly Wilshire when it presented the first Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Awards to Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

What made the evening ignite was a 40-minute performance by Motown legend Smokey Robinson. Backed by a 20-member band, including a 12-piece string section, the singer did a greatest-hits concert that brought two standing ovations from the 700-strong crowd.


The show was so powerful that the award presentation afterward paled in comparison. This despite the popularity of the honorees. “These are two of my heroes,” Wesley Snipes said. “I’ve been watching these cats since I was a kid. Everything I do was influenced by them. What they did back then opened the doors for me now.”

During the video tribute and remarks by emcee Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and LDF director-counsel Elaine Jones, much was made of the friendship Poitier and Belafonte have shared since meeting as 19-year-olds in 1945. “They have the kind of friendship that survives and gets better every year,” novelist Jackie Collins said.

The presentation was made by Marshall’s son, John, and his widow, Cecilia, who said the late Supreme Court justice (and founder of the Legal Defense Fund) had known Belafonte since 1963, after meeting him in Kenya.

She said her husband had gotten to know Poitier while he was making the 1991 miniseries “Separate but Equal,” in which the actor played the role of Marshall.

“Thurgood told me he thought (Poitier) did a good job,” Marshall said. “It was about 90% accurate, which is about as close anything can come.”

Among the guests who helped the dinner net $350,000 were Marvin and Barbara Davis, Sid and Lorraine Sheinberg, Dionne Warwick, Diahann Carroll, Wendy and Leonard Goldberg, Berry Gordy, Barry Krost, Tom Bradley, Clarence Avant, Robert Guillaume, Norman Lear, George and Jolene Schlatter, Angela Bassett and Tony Danza.

Jones said future Thurgood Marshall Awards won’t necessarily be given on an annual basis, but rather when there is an honoree whose life reflects what the justice said could be his epitaph: “He did the best he could with what he had.”