“They Call Me Mister Tibbs!”: A Tribute to Sidney Poitier

“I always wanted to be someone better the next day than I was the day before.” ~Sidney Poitier

On January 6, 2022, Oscar award winning actor, director, ambassador, and civil rights activist Sidney Poitier KBE passed away at the age of 94 in Los Angeles, California. His dignity, style, and grace made Poitier one of the most distinguished actors of all time. During Poitier’s seven decade career, he won numerous awards and received several honors for his talent and dedication to equality. In 1963, Poitier became the first Black man and Bahamian to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role as Homer Smith, a gentle handyman, in Lilies of the Field. He also received a Grammy Award for The Measure of a Man (2001), a British Academy Film Award for The Defiant Ones (1959), and two Golden Globe Awards. Poitier was named an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Miami. In 1995, Poitier received the Kennedy Center Honor, and in 2009, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama hugs Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient actor Sidney Poitier during the award ceremony in the East Room of the White House, August 12, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza NAID 183898370)

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, while his parents were there on a trip selling tomatoes from their farm in the Bahamas. He was the youngest of the seven children born to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier. Poitier was a bit of a “trouble-maker” as a child in Nassau, and was sent to live with his brother in Miami at the age of 15. A year later, he relocated to New York City where he worked a series of odd jobs, and even lied about his age to enlist in the Army in 1943. Poitier’s time in the military was short-lived and he was discharged in 1944. 

After the Army, Poitier was accepted into the American Negro Theater, but had a difficult time because of his Bahamian accent and not being able to sing. These challenges just motivated him to work on his acting skills, and in 1950, Poitier was given a role in the film No Way Out. His performance was widely noticed, which led to more acting offers. Poitier starred in numerous movies. A few of his most memorable roles were in Cry, the Beloved Country (1950), Blackboard Jungle (1955), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). In the 1970s, Poitier began directing. Some notable movies he directed were Stir Crazy (1980), Fast Forward (1985), and Ghost Dad (1990). He also starred in and directed Buck and the Preacher (1972), Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Let’s Do it Again (1975).

Poitier, Belafonte, and Heston standing in front of the statue inside the Lincoln Memorial
Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, Aug 28, 1963 (NAID 542061)

Poitier’s other passion was fighting for civil rights. He supported the non-violent preachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and often made public appearances at peaceful boycotts and marches. Poitier, along with fellow actor and activist Harry Belafonte provided financial and moral support to civil rights activists. Poitier and Belafonte assisted with the planning and attended the March on Washington in 1963. They were even chased and shot at by the Ku Klux Klan for smuggling in $70,000, to fund freedom workers in Mississippi in 1964, to which they barely escaped with their lives. 

The National Archives and the Presidential Libraries hold several documents, photographs, moving images, and sound recordings on Sidney Poitier. Most of these file units and items relate to his work as a civil rights activist. Below are a few selections:

  • Hollywood Roundtable (NAID 48331)
  • Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama (NAID 77176538)
  • Sidney Poitier Oscar Awards (NAID 130788)
  • Roy Wilkins – The Right to Dignity (NAID 2546045)

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