“Racism is painful and we need to be sharp about it, not just victims of it. And on the other hand, victims of racism are charged with a responsibility to have the clearest eye possible to examine what they perceive to identify the sources of racism,” the legendary actor told the Vancouver Sun in 2000.
Here are some of the late actor’s other reflections on racism and segregation before, during, and after the civil rights era.
Racial tensions in the South initially came as a shock to Poitier when he arrived in Florida in the 1940s at age 14 to live with relatives. Growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, his identity was never linked to skin color and he quickly resisted that idea.
“I wasn’t what I needed to be in Florida. I wasn’t. I couldn’t be that. I was taught that I had basic human rights. I was taught that I was someone. I knew we had no money, right, I learned that I was someone. We had no electricity and no running water, yet, I learned that I was someone. I had very little education – a year and a half was basically all the education I was exposed to – yet I knew I was someone, he added.
About being a black movie star in Hollywood
“I had to think twice or three times about every step I took,” Poitier said.
“I was in a culture that denied me my existence. And I had no powers behind me. Walking the streets outside ‘The Neighbourhood’ where I confined myself, I had to be constantly on my guard. The America I where I’m talking about then was a different place: the dominant culture didn’t care about my survival as a human being.”
About breaking color barriers in film
It was difficult for a dark-skinned actor like Poitier to find complex roles in the 1950s.
“(Blacks) were so new to Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us, except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters,” Poitier told Winfrey. “I envisioned what was expected of me, not just what other blacks expected, but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected from myself.”
“It’s been a huge responsibility,” Poitier told Winfrey. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to get behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
About his activism
Poitier was also known for his activism and how he embraced the civil rights movement. In 1963, he attended the March in Washington, and in 1964 the actor traveled to Mississippi to meet with activists in the days following the infamous murder of three young civil rights activists.
“I found it necessary for self-protection and survival that I get involved in any activity that would temporarily relieve my burden,” he said of his decision to attend the march.