Harry Belafonte has never been one to bite his tongue. He once compared Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to house slaves.

Time has not diminished his bluntness. In his memoir, "My Song," Belafonte says, "Barack Obama seems to lack a fundamental empathy with the dispossessed, be they white or black."

He also writes about how Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy jockeyed to assume leadership of the civil rights movement following the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination.

While these potentially inflammatory remarks may make headlines, they shouldn't obscure the value of what is an honest, in many ways important and genuinely revelatory autobiography.

Belafonte hasn't performed or recorded for some time, so for many people, he's just the guy who sang about a banana boat. Probably fewer remember that he was a civil rights activist, at the front line of demonstrations against injustice.

But, as "My Song" reveals, Belafonte not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk.

He flew down to Greenwood, Miss., during Freedom Summer and was almost run off the road by men presumed to be KKK members. He was a trusted adviser to King. But in perhaps his most unheralded role, Belafonte often served as an intermediary between elements of the movement and the Kennedy administration, which initially was not enthusiastic in its support.

Belafonte was born in New York and grew up in a household with a difficult mother and a violent father. He spent some of his formative years in Jamaica, living with his maternal grandmother, before returning to Manhattan.

He dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Navy and worked as an assistant janitor. One night a tenant gave him tickets to a performance of the American Negro Theater, and that night changed his life.

He joined the company and used the GI Bill to enroll in the New School Drama Workshop, where he was given a singing role. That ultimately (though not easily) led to Belafonte's spectacular career. His success came at a pivotal time in America. His breakthrough appearances in previously segregated venues, on television and in film, helped change the nation's mind-set.

Belafonte's occasional tendency to be snide in this book is troubling. For example, he asked Marlon Brando to co-chair the celebrity delegation for the March on Washington with Charlton Heston, telling him: "I knew that Heston wasn't a great actor. Behind those iconic good looks and macho swagger was an insecure guy who yearned for the approval of his peers."

When asked, Heston immediately said yes. Why ascribe less than noble motives to a noble act?

Belafonte is 84, and is certainly entitled to be crotchety. But asides like that come off mean-spirited and beneath him. Still, "My Song" is more than fitting denouement for a life well lived.

Curt Schleier is a New Jersey-based writer.