January 17, 2020

A letter from three civil rights icons reveals a key moment in Black history

Black History 101 Museum founder shares one of his most inspirational artifacts.

Actors Harry Belafonte, left, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and Sidney Poitier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in August 1963. Belafonte and Poitier, along with the legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, advocated for a cross-cultural exchange that brought African students to study in America, including the father of a future president of the United States. Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Dr. Khalid el-Hakim is an educator and the founder of Black History 101 Mobile Museum, a collection of over 7,000 original objects of Black memorabilia dating from the trans-Atlantic slave trade era to hip-hop culture. From time to time, he shares items from his collection that have inspired him and his students. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he describes one of his most precious artifacts, a letter written by three prominent celebrities of the civil rights era whose influence paved the way for a future president of the United States.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, many people saw it as symbolic of how far our country had come to realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At least on a surface level people made a connection between Dr. King’s “dream” and the newly-elected president.

But there is a more profound connection between the two that I made in recent years that blew my mind as a collector and archivist. I found this letter around the early 1990s, more than likely at an antique shop. I can not remember exactly where because at the time I was only purchasing items for my own personal use, not knowing that eventually I would be starting a mobile museum that would travel the country. I bought it simply because of the autographs of Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, and Sidney Poitier. I didn’t pay attention to the content until a few years ago. Since then it’s become one of the most important documents in the Black History 101 Mobile Museum.

A letter from 1959, watermarked by the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, reveals how three American icons used their fame and influence to support a cultural exchange for African students in the mid-20th century. Image courtesy of Khalid el-Hakim

After doing some research, I found a phenomenal history that I was totally unaware of. This letter shows that in 1959, these three giants in their respective fields used their celebrity status and personal finances to raise funds to initially bring 81 Kenyan students to America to go to college. At the time of this letter, Belafonte had become one of Dr. King’s closest confidants and supporters. All three men were on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when Dr. King gave his famous speech during the March on Washington.

The connection of these men to Dr. King’s legacy lives on until this day. But, one of the most unsuspecting connections comes in the efforts of these three men’s commitment to providing educational opportunities to African students through project Airlift Africa. If it weren’t for Belafonte, Robinson, and Poitier’s effort in the spirit and legacy of Dr. King, we wouldn’t have had the first Black president of the United States. Because one of the initial 81 students through this educational program was no other than Barack Hussein Obama Sr.!

Dr. Khalid el-Hakim

Black History 101 Mobile Museum

Dr. Khalid el-Hakim is the founder and curator of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, a collection of over 7,000 original artifacts of Black memorabilia dating from the trans-Atlantic slave trade era to hip-hop culture. Dr. el-Hakim has been called the "Schomburg of the Hip-Hop generation" because of his passionate commitment to carry on the rich tradition of the Black Museum Movement. He has received national and international attention for his innovative work of exhibiting Black history outside of traditional museum spaces. Most recently Dr. el-Hakim was given the distinct honor of being named among the Change Makers for NBC Universal’s Erase the Hate campaign and was one of the 100 Men of Distinction for 2017 in Black Enterprise magazine. As the nation's premiere Black history traveling exhibit, the Black History 101 Mobile Museum has exhibited in 40 states at over 500 institutions including: colleges/universities, K-12 schools, corporations, libraries, conferences, and cultural events making it the most sought-after exhibit of its kind in America. Dr. el-Hakim taught middle school social studies in Detroit for 15 years and recently founded the Michigan Hip Hop Archive which opens on the campus of Western Michigan University in 2020.
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