I knew she was talented and drop-dead gorgeous. But, it wasn't until I read Emily Yellin's superb book, Our Mothers' War, that I learned about Horne's pioneering role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Yellin's 2004 tome shines the spotlight on the role women played here, and abroad, during World War II. It's a fascinating page-turner that covers everything from WACS and WAVES to female traitors, radio DJs, spies, and movie stars such as Horne.
Lena was one of the few black Hollywood entertainers recruited by the USO to perform for our troops. She had been the first black woman to have the power to have her contract with the studio stipulate that she would not play maids or jungle natives, which had previously been the only roles open for black women. And, although she was deeply frustrated by the Jim Crow segregation laws that existed at the time, Horne agreed to the USO's request that she perform two, separate shows every time: one for the white G.I's and another one for blacks.
This continued until she was on a domestic tour to entertain troops stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. Once there, Horne was told to stay two days. USO officials said she was needed to perform for white troops the first night, stay over, and then entertain black G.I.'s the next morning. She wasn't happy, but Horne agreed to change her plans and do the two performances.
Just before the second show began, however, Horne pulled aside the curtain and saw that the first few rows were full of white men, and the black American troops, who she was there to perform for, were seated behind them. 'Who are those guys?' she asked the stage manager. 'German P.O.W.'s,' he replied.
That was the final straw. Horne sang a few songs for the black G.I.'s, with her back turned on the Germans, completely ignoring them, then broke down and rushed off the stage. She headed to the nearest NAACP office and, with their help, issued a formal, written complaint to the USO. Horne stopped touring with the USO and, instead, underwrote her own, separate tour just to entertain the black troops in the evenings. That took some serious intestinal fortitude.
Yellin reports that American blacks fought two world wars in the 1940's. In fact, African-Americans spoke about a Double V: victory over the Axis forces and victory over segregation.
The first came with the surrenders of Germany and Japan, respectively. The second didn't begin in an organized way until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, to end public school segregation. And, it didn't take full flight until the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s with the murder of Emmett Till, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and elsewhere.
When I think of Independence Day, I think of great American heroes. After having read Yellin's book about Lena Horne's efforts to end racism in mid 20th century America, I'd now include her in that list.
I'd also draw your attention to the difference in Hollywood stars, then and now.
During WWII, we had celebrities such as Horne fighting for equal rights, Jimmy Stewart flying countless bombing missions over Nazi Germany and Carole Lombard losing her life in a plane crash during a war bond tour.
Compare those heavyweights with Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Snooki, and one can begin to see just one reason why America finds itself in its current condition. Today's heroes are pale imitations, to say the least.
It may be just one blogger's opinion, but I believe one Lena Horne was worth more than all the modern-day stars populating Hollywood lumped together. And, I can't think of a single star I'd call an American hero. Can you?