If you visit the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, just a stone’s throw from where John F. Kennedy – to whom the museum is dedicated – was shot dead, you will find a visitor’s book crammed full of messages celebrating JFK as America’s “greatest president”. To many Americans, he was (and is) a christ-like figure; a good-hearted family man for whom the prosperity of a nation meant all of its inhabitants being equal. After successfully steering America clear of all-out nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and having spent the last few years ignoring the issue of racial inequality, Kennedy began working towards the passing of a civil rights bill that he hoped would end racial segregation.
Why, then, did this apparently warm and socially-conscious president refuse one of the most prominent Black actors, singers and dancers in America to perform at his inauguration?
By 1961, the same year he and Frank Sinatra campaigned to elect John F. Kennedy, Davis was at the very height of his fame. The assumption was that Davis, having been such a vocal supporter, would be invited to the inauguration after the vote was announced. According to Davis’ daughter, however, Kennedy refused to let him perform after he married Swedish actress Mary Britt. Based on conversations with her father in his final months Sammy Davis Jr: A Personal Journey With My Father offers insight into the snub and the intense racial bigotry the entertainer experienced in the build-up.
Davis once jokingly referred to himself as the only “Black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed Jewish entertainer” in the world. He began singing and dancing his way to the top at the age of three when his father, Sammy Davis Sr. and his godfather Will Mastin made him perform as the third member of the Will Mastin Trio. Because it was illegal for performers under 16 to appear onstage, Davis’ father put him in blackface and claimed that he was a 44-year old dwarf called Silent Sam.
This was the 1920s, so the Will Mastin trio were forced to stay in ‘coloured’ boarding houses while on the road. The young Davis was confused about why they weren’t allowed to stay with the other performers. In response, his father told him that it was because the other performers were jealous of their act. Recalling his father’s explanations, Davis told his daughter: “Somehow in my naive sheltered world, I believed it. All I knew was when the Will Mastin Trio got onstage, people laughed, clapped, were entertained. Talent earned us respect,” he added. “Talent was my only weapon.”
In 1944, Davis joined the US Army. At 17 years old, 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds, the entertainer was frequently the target of beatings by white soldiers in his unit. In the book, Davis recalls being repeatedly sent to the infirmary with a broken nose: “Every night I would lay in bed, wondering what is it about skin that made people hate so much. But it was far deeper than skin; to these white cats, I was a different breed,” Sammy said. It wasn’t until one sergeant Williams taught Davis to read and write that things started to change. “Sergeant Williams was my saviour. ‘You’ve got to fight with your brains, Sammy, not your fists'”, Davis recalled the Sergeant telling him. “I owe him my life. He tempered all the humiliation I felt from my unit. He distracted me from all my rage, all my anger. I wouldn’t have survived the army without him.”
Williams likely reminded Davis of another close friend, Frank Sinatra. The pair met in 1941 after the Will Maston Trio were asked to fill in as the support act for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. They shared a sandwich between shows and became fast friends.” Nobody but Frank Sinatra could have put Sammy Davis where he was,” he recalled in his book. “Sinatra, first of all was never a racist kind of guy. He cared about everybody being equal. When Frank said, ‘This guy’s great,’ they all paid attention.”
None of that stopped Davis from becoming the subject of racial abuse after he struck up a relationship with Swedish actress and model May Britt. News of their union was met with numerous death threats, forcing Sammy to hire a 24-hour armed guard. Interracial marriages were illegal in 31 states at the time, and hate group demonstrations took place outside many of the venues Sammy was performing. Frank Sinatra was supposed to be Sammy’d best man, but the marriage controversy coincided with JFK’s presidential campaign. As a vocal supporter of Kennedy, Sinatra asked Davis to postpone the wedding hoping that his association with the entertainer wouldn’t impact votes. As the demonstrations continued and the death threats piled up, Sammy’s name was removed from the list of entertainers at the party Sinatra was hosting for Kennedy’s inauguration. Like Sinatra, he’d worked tirelessly to promote Kennedy during his campaign. And this was his thanks.