It wasn’t easy to make it to the top for Sammy Davis Jr. back in the 50′s and 60′s. He had the talent of a superstar, but being a young black man subjected him to humiliations that civil rights campaigns had only started to address. And it hit Sammy hard. Segregation was prevalent in many of the places Sammy performed, including Las Vegas. Back in the 50′s a casino called the Moulin Rouge was practically the only place in Las Vegas where African Americans could gamble and stay.
One particularly troubling incident for Sammy occurred at the 1960 Democratic convention, at which John F. Kennedy won the presidential nomination with help from Frank Sinatra and friends, including Sammy. As Sammy was introduced, boos erupted from the Alabama and Mississippi delegations. During that campaign, instead supporting Sammy, the Kennedy camp was worried about the consequences among voters in the South among others, and actually put pressure on Sammy to keep a low profile. They even wanted him to put off his upcoming marriage to a white woman, May Britt, until the voting was over. Frank refused to ask that of Sammy, but Sammy felt obligated, and so, for Frank and the campaign, he postponed the wedding.
Although it tooks years, Sammy eventually did get to see the times change and racial relations improve in America, although he didn’t stay with us long enough to see Barack Obama elected president. That, Sammy would have loved.
Sammy’s experiences are well documented in the book Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy. And Sammy’s on-stage personality is re-created in today’s Rat Pack tribute shows, featuring some of America’s top Rat Pack Impersonators.