Legendary entertainer Josephine Baker—who was born 110 years ago Friday—was an icon of the Jazz Age and a star performer at the Paris cabaret music hall Folies-Bergère. She remains well-known for the comedic elements of her performances, whether they involved “singing an Ave Maria while clad only in a girdle of bananas,” as LIFE Magazine once put it, or posing with her pet cheetah Chiquita.
But the Missouri native-turned-French citizen was also devoted to no-nonsense causes, and the photos above show she was as lively on the political stage as she was on the stages of French and American nightclubs and casinos. In addition to performing for troops, she is said to have delivered military intelligence messages written in invisible ink on sheet music to aid the French Resistance movement during World War II. Such acts of heroism later earned her the Croix de Guerre, and she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by French President Charles de Gaulle.
And though her move to France had been partly motivated by what TIME once called an attempt “to escape the humiliations of a racist America,” the African-American performer also became a key figure in the American civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She was famously monitored by the FBI after she called out New York City’s Stork Club for denying her service, and she refused to perform at venues with segregated audiences. And those tactics paid off: Some historians have credited her with desegregating the Las Vegas casinos. As she said at the 1963 March on Washington, while sharing a podium with Martin Luther King Jr. and looking out at the mixed-race crowd, “Salt and pepper—just what it should be.”
Baker died in 1975.
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