But even that side of Kitt obscured the Kitt who was passionately devoted to and supported peace and civil rights causes. The clash with Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson at the celebrity women's luncheon in January 1968 gave the first public hint of that.
Lady Bird Johnson had invited Kitt to the luncheon and in an innocent moment asked Kitt what she thought about the problems of inner city youth. Kitt didn't mince words and lambasted the Johnson administration for not doing more about poverty, joblessness, and drugs in black communities. Kitt didn't stop there, she tied her outburst directly into an attack on the Vietnam War, a war she said was without reason or explanation.
Kitt's verbal assault on the war and racial problems made headline news. A badly shaken first lady and an enraged LBJ denounced her. The next few years she was hounded and harassed by the FBI, the IRS and Secret Service agents. The CIA even compiled a gossipy, intrusive dossier on her that attempted to paint her as a sex starved malcontent. The public storm and the negative press proved too much for Kitt.
Kitt's career was effectively dead in the United States. But she stuck by her guns and did not apologize, retract or soften her criticism of Johnson's war and racial policies. Kitt in fact hadn't said anything at that luncheon that thousands of others hadn't said about Johnson's hopelessly failed, flawed and losing war and racial problems. The difference was who said it --namely a celebrated star, and where it was said, at the White House. Kitt took the heat and paid the price for giving an honest opinion and deep felt belief about the cause of peace and social justice. She was branded as a racial agitator.
Missed in the overreaching hysteria and the vindictive bashing was that underneath the glitter and carefully crafted sexpot image, Kitt had given time and money to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. She supported and participated in the March on Washington in August of 1963. During her wilderness years when she was forced to work outside the United States, she took heat for performing before all white audiences in South Africa. But like so much about Kitt that went unnoticed, she broke barriers by insisting that her cast was integrated. She also quietly raised money for black schools in the country.
During our brief talk before her stage performance in Los Angeles, Kitt spent as much time talkin about her devotion to the Civil Rights movement and the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, than about the production she was in. She did not mince words when I gingerly asked her about the "incident." She laughed but did not express any regret about what she said and did that day at the White House. She expressed no bitterness about the years of media and public ostracism.
This is the Eartha Kitt, the impassioned contributor to peace and civil rights, that I knew, remember, and pay homage to.
As she popularized in a song with the same title "C'est si bon" -- it's so good.
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Albion Monitor December
29, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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