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Wings to a Cause

The Power of Celebrity Do-Gooders

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • June 17, 2020

The Midas Touch

Celebrity activism has become ubiquitous. These days, it seems like many stars jump on the philanthropic bandwagon just to boost their image. But historically, standing up and speaking out could be risky for entertainers. Many were pressured to stay silent about controversial topics for fear of alienating fans or losing support for their work. But for many hard-fought causes, like racial equity and gay rights, having celebrity support can lead to a tipping point. Here we feature eleven luminaries who weren’t afraid to take bold stands and fight for change even when it wasn’t a popular choice.

Civil Rights Champions

As the first African American to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson navigated a great deal of prejudice and opposition as he pursued his dreams. After retiring from the sport in 1957, he became active in the civil rights movement, even holding backyard concerts to raise funds for bailing out jailed activists. Promises to Keep offers an intimate portrait of the sports icon, written by his daughter Sharon Robinson.

Muhammad Ali was another star athlete who put his might behind the civil rights fight. He also took a controversial position as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War, resulting in his being banned from boxing during his prime. Read about his indomitable spirit in the YA-friendly biography The Greatest by Walter Dean Myers.

In his 1965 autobiography, Yes I Can, singer and actor Sammy Davis Jr. describes his experiences working alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and supporting such groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and the Chicago Urban League.

"If it hadn't been for Aretha—and others, but particularly Aretha—the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings," said congressman John Lewis, recalling the dedication of the famed singer as she performed an eleven-city tour, performing for free to support the movement. Respect by David Ritz is described as the definitive biography of the Queen of Soul.

In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, singer Nina Simone talks about writing her song Mississippi God Damn about the civil rights movement. "It erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down. I knew then that I would dedicate myself to the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality under the law for as long as it took, until all our battles were won." Amen!

As an entertainer, Josephine Baker was known for her flamboyant, bold style. And this fearlessness applied to her personal life as well. Jazz Age Josephine is a fun picture book by Jonah Winter about how she made her way from a poor childhood in a segregated city to a world-famous star of the stage and screen. Josephine Baker's Last Dance is a novel by Sherry Jones based on the legendary star's adventurous life.

Pre-Pride Powerhouses

When Ellen Morgan, the lead sitcom character played by Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian, she knew it would be a big deal. At the same time, Degeneres went public with her own sexual orientation and readied herself for the unknown reaction of the public. Her book Seriously...I'm Kidding gives some humor-filled insight into the star's plucky disposition.

As part of this same story, Oprah Winfrey appeared as Ellen's therapist on the episode. And after hosting Degeneres's own coming out announcement on her talk show, Winfrey stood up to detractors who said that she couldn't rightly call herself a Christian if she supported gay rights. Her book of essays, What I Know for Sure offers a rare intimate glimpse into the media mogul's heart, mind, and spirit.

A child star, Elizabeth Taylor spent most of her life in the public eye and her personal life was as dramatic as any role she played. But for many, her most enduring legacy was her work supporting AIDS research. In the early 1980s, Taylor became a frontrunner in advocating for treatment. Liz: An Intimate Biography by C. David Heymann provides a window into her tumultuous, passionate life.

Decades before Lady Gaga's Born This Way, Madonna hits such as Express Yourself and Vogue served as powerful gay anthems. Long considered an ally of the Queer community, the Material Girl's body of work catalyzed public discourse around sexual freedom and she has often spoken out in support of the LGBT community. Read about her life in Madonna: Like an Icon by Lucy O'Brien.

George Takei publicly revealed his sexual orientation in 2005 in support of same-sex marriage legislation in California. At the time, he said, "It's not really coming out, which suggests opening a door and stepping through. It's more like a long, long walk through what began as a narrow corridor that starts to widen." When he was just five years old, the Japanese-American actor's family was forced into internment camps during World War II. He co-wrote an excellent graphic memoir about this experience, titled They Called Us Enemy.

When famous people speak out, they have the power to sway public opinion. The celebrities featured here took some difficult stands. Their personal stories shine with the integrity and strength that not only propelled them to stardom, but also gave them the courage use their platform for change.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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