Hollywood Flashback: Barbra Streisand Sang for Civil Rights in 1968

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From left: Belafonte, Streisand, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and his wife, Juanita, and Cosby backstage at the Hollywood Bowl on July 17, 1968.

The singer, who begins a nine-city tour in August, performed at the fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign, which had been started by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For Barbra Streisand, who begins a nine-city tour in August that kicks off in Los Angeles, the period from mid-1967 to mid-1968 was filled with milestones. The 25-year-old performed solo in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow to a 135,000-strong crowd (the largest concert audience in park history); finished filming Funny Girl (later tying with Katharine Hepburn for the best actress Oscar); and headlined a July 17, 1968, fundraiser praised on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter as “a cause of the heart.” The Hollywood Bowl event benefitted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had been started by Dr. Martin Luther King, and Streisand had helped at a 1965 concert at New York’s Majestic Theatre.

The SCLC’s Andrew Young, now 84, says they first connected with the singer when “Chauncey Eskridge, who was Muhammad Ali’s attorney, arranged for us to hear her sing at a club in Chicago. We were very impressed. I remember when we left, Martin said, ‘How come we’ve never heard of this woman with this great voice?’ ” For the Bowl event, organizers originally reached out to Aretha Franklin who doesn’t like to fly, so they turned again to Streisand. The fundraiser came at an exceptionally emotional period. King had been assassinated in April, and Robert Kennedy was killed in June after winning the California Democratic primary; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would come in August. “It was a very depressing time,” says Young. “We were so lost.”

Concert headliners were Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby and Herb Alpert with his Tijuana Brass Band. Tickets went from $4.75 to $25 ($32 to $170 today); 17,356 were sold, and $140,000 raised (slightly less than $1 million now). Belafonte both sang and spoke, saying the civil rights campaign “will go on, no matter what you’ve heard.” Cosby did routines about sharing a bed with his brother. Alpert played his hit “A Taste of Honey.” Streisand began her performance with the words “I’m not pregnant” (she’d had a child with husband Elliott Gould 18 months earlier, but otherwise, the remark was a puzzler) and ended it, at midnight, standing under a blue spotlight, with a showstopping rendition of “People.”

This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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